Sunday, September 30, 2012

Post-Grad Farming

 Maybe Kunstler's onto something after all:
RED HOOK, N.Y. — It was harvest time, and several farm hands were hunched over a bed of sweet potatoes under the midday sun, elbow deep in soil for $10 an hour. But they were not typical laborers.

Jeff Arnold, 28, who has learned how to expertly maneuver a tractor, graduated from Colorado State University. Abe Bobman, 24, who studied sociology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, was clearing vines alongside Nate Krauss-Malett, 25, who went to Skidmore College.

Mr. Krauss-Malett said he became interested in farming after working in a restaurant and seeing how much food was wasted. Mr. Bobman had the same realization working in the produce section at a grocery store before college.

They had been in the fields here at Hearty Roots Community Farm in the Hudson Valley since 7 a.m. They all said they could not imagine doing any other job.

“Farming appeals to me, and probably to other people, because it’s simple and straightforward work outdoors with literal fruits from your labor,” Mr. Bobman said. “It doesn’t feel like you’re a part of an oppressive institution.”

For decades, the number of farmers has been shrinking as a share of the population, and agriculture has often been seen as a backbreaking profession with little prestige. But the last Agricultural Census in 2007 showed a 4 percent increase in the number of farms, the first increase since 1920, and some college graduates are joining in the return to the land. 
 After Graduating From College, It’s Time to Plow, Plant and Harvest (New York Times)

But as Stuart Saniford notes, we've got a long way to go:

Here is more from Stuart.

Growth Versus Happiness

As if we needed any more evidence. Here's Robert Skidelsky:
The case against making increased GDP per capita the overriding policy objective is that it doesn’t deliver the increased happiness or welfare if promises. In 1974, the economist Richard Easterlin published a famous paper, “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?”. The answer, he concluded, after correlating per capita incomes and self-reported happiness levels across a number of countries is probably “no”. In a refinement dating from 1995, Easterlin found no relationship between income and happiness above an average per capita income level of between $15,000 and $20,000. Other findings confirm Easterlin. Data from the UK show that from 1973 to 2009, there was a continuous rise in GDP per head, but no increase in reported life-satisfaction. What is more, some of the “happiest” countries are also the poorest. However, inequality within countries does matter for happiness: the rich in the UK are on the whole happier than the poor.

Why, above a quite low income threshold, does a person’s happiness not increase with more income? The intuitive explanation must be that rising incomes produce dissatisfactions which offset the pleasure which the increase affords. Turner discusses some of the ills of wealth. The richer societies are, the more “status” goods people want, but because status is relative there is never, so to speak, enough of it to go round. The same is true of “positional” goods. “If the supply of pleasant homes is restricted then you have to seek to win in the relative income competition.” But there are only a few winners. Growth in wealth also worsens the environment, thus degrading the benefits it seems to make more generally available.

These negative effects of economic growth on contentment levels are well known. More radical is Turner’s attack on our way of measuring wealth. GDP measures the volume of marketed output, not its quality. But it is the improvement in quality which is chiefly important for satisfaction. Taking his cue from the economist Roger Bootle, Turner argues that a large fraction of GDP, especially in finance, law and “branding”, measures “distributive” rather than “creative” transactions; that is, it measures transfers between groups and individuals rather than net additions to income. “The clever lawyer who wins a case for his client achieves a redistribution from the opposing client but doesn’t create greater social value.”

Inequality within societies does matter for happiness, however. Studies show that, in any society, the rich are happier than the poor, and that at the same average income levels, more equal societies record greater levels of happiness. This throws the onus of increasing welfare or satisfaction on distribution. But modern capitalist society, especially in its Anglo-American version, produces growing inequality: over the past thirty years the very rich have pulled away from the moderately rich, the average from the median, and the median from the bottom. Why have the rich gained and the poor lost ground?
Does Economic Growth Make You Happy? (Times Literary Supplement)

Terrific article, in review of a book that posits the following:
... [Adair Turner's] book challenges the three main planks of what he calls the “instrumental conventional wisdom”. The first is that the object of policy should be to maximize Gross Domestic Product per head; the second, that the primary means of doing this is to create freer markets; the third, that increased inequality is acceptable as long as it delivers superior growth. The attack is devastating, leaving little of the policy edifice of the past thirty years standing. 
Worth reading in full. And speaking of Easterlin, mentioned above, here he is in The New York Times on China:
CHINA’s new leaders, who will be anointed next month at the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress in Beijing, might want to rethink the Faustian bargain their predecessors embraced some 20 years ago: namely, that social stability could be bought by rapid economic growth.

As the recent riots at a Foxconn factory in northern China demonstrate, growth alone, even at sustained, spectacular rates, has not produced the kind of life satisfaction crucial to a stable society — an experience that shows how critically important good jobs and a strong social safety net are to people’s happiness.

Starting in 1990, as China moved to a free-market economy, real per-capita consumption and gross domestic product doubled, then doubled again. Most households now have at least one color TV. Refrigerators and washing machines — rare before 1990 — are common in cities.

Yet there is no evidence that the Chinese people are, on average, any happier, according to an analysis of survey data that colleagues and I conducted. If anything, they are less satisfied than in 1990, and the burden of decreasing satisfaction has fallen hardest on the bottom third of the population in wealth. Satisfaction among Chinese in even the upper third has risen only moderately.
 Why is this? Well, here are some reasons:
 Before free-market reforms kicked in, most urban Chinese workers enjoyed what was called an “iron rice bowl”: permanent jobs and an extensive employer-provided safety net, which included subsidized food, housing, health care, child care, pensions and jobs for grown children. Life satisfaction during this period among urban Chinese, despite their much lower levels of income, was almost as high as in the developed world.

The transition to a more private economy in the 1990s abruptly overturned the iron rice bowl. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese who worked at inefficient and unprofitable state companies were laid off. The loss of jobs also meant the loss of the employer-provided safety net. Growing numbers of rural migrants took city jobs that provided no benefits. Among urban workers still employed, concerns about job security and the continuation of benefits mounted. Life satisfaction in urban areas declined markedly.

Worries about job security are reflected in feelings of financial satisfaction. In 2007, only 27 percent of Chinese in the lowest third of the income distribution expressed satisfaction with their financial situation, down from 42 percent in 1990. Evidence of a fraying social safety net is indicated by the decline in self-reported health among the bottom third: those reporting that their health was good or very good dropped to 44 percent, compared with 54 percent in 1990. 
When Growth Outpaces Happiness (NYT)

Sacrifice social stability and overall happiness to make a winner-take-all society in the name of "innovation" and supposedly all will be better off. Unfortunately, it happens to be tearing the world apart right now. I can't help but note that it seems like both the average American and the average Chinese person got fucked over by this deal, with a small core of elites benefiting. It also gave us oceans of foreclosed homes in America and empty cities in China, along with overproduction and debt crises. It's true: what begins as tragedy ends as farce. And see this:
Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.

This obsessive, driven, relentless pursuit is a characteristically American struggle — the exhausting daily application of the Declaration of Independence. But at the same time this elusive MacGuffin is creating a nation of nervous wrecks. Despite being the richest nation on earth, the United States is, according to the World Health Organization, by a wide margin, also the most anxious, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime. America’s precocious levels of anxiety are not just happening in spite of the great national happiness rat race, but also perhaps, because of it.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Peak Bacon!

I could take Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak Helium, Peak Phosphorus, Peak Copper, and Peak Gold. I could even live with Peak Olive Oil, Peak Coffee and Peak Chocolate and Peak Health. But this has gone too far:
Is it pork-ageddon? Britain's National Pig Association has sounded the alarm that the world should brace for an "unavoidable" bacon and pork shortage next year.

The cause of the trouble is high pig-feed costs caused by what it describes in a press release as "the global failure of maize and soya harvests."

The organization notes that new data shows that pig herds are declining at a significant rate, not just in Britain, but around the world.
Worldwide Bacon Shortage 'Unavoidbale' (Yahoo!)

However, further sources say the claim is greatly exaggerated:
The high feed prices are attributed partly to this year's widespread droughts, which have jacked up corn and soy prices and resulted in half of all U.S. counties being declared disaster areas. Some farmers have tried to cope by feeding candy to livestock.

Steve Meyer, a consulting economist to the National Pork Board (whose members are chosen by the U.S. secretary of agriculture), said U.S. pork consumers are likely to see price jumps next year as a result of this year's droughts, as the British trade group claims; however, he says the rise in prices will be slight, and he questions the group's "apocalyptic tone."

"There will be less pork, but that's happened before," Meyer told Life's Little Mysteries. "I'd be surprised worldwide if it's more than a 2 or 3 percent decrease on per-capita availability. That number hasn't changed that much in a long time."

And then there’s this from the above article:
A recent report from the Stockholm International Water Institute found that in the year 2050, the Earth's water supply will be able to sustain the expected world population of 9 billion people only if humans are deriving just 5 percent of their calories from animal-based foods ― meat, eggs and dairy ― instead of the current proportion of 20 percent.
One thing’s certain, the supplies of things have begun to shrink. That’s Peak in my book. On a side note – I wonder how bad the meat from animals fed gummy worms is going to be.

UPDATE: BoingBoing clears it up:

Commodity market prediction takes the Internet by storm — Good news! There is not an unavoidable bacon shortage looming in our future. Bad news! What was actually being predicted was really an increase in meat prices across the board. Droughts have completely decimated this year's corn crop, and as corn is the stuff we usually feed our meat, it's going to cost more to raise a pig (or a cow, or a chicken) next year. Key takeaways: There will still be meat, it's just going to be more spendy next year, and also don't trust the British when they offer you "bacon" because they actually mean Canadian bacon, which is different (and inferior).

Real takeaway - purchase grass-fed beef and naturally-raised pork from reputable local sources.

One Hundred Mile Long Traffic Jams

It sounds like the stuff of fiction or parody, but it’s a reality in much of the developing world. Here’s São Paulo:
Friday evenings are a commuter's worst nightmare in Sao Paulo.

That's when all the tailbacks in and out of the city extend for a total of 180km (112 miles), on average, according to local traffic engineers, and as long as 295km (183 miles) on a really bad day. Red brake lights stretch as far back as the eye can see, blinking repeatedly as drivers endure an exasperating stop-and-go journey, which can continue for hours.

"It's like a sea. A sea of cars," says Fabiana Crespo, as she slowly navigates the congested streets with her 10-month-old baby Rodrigo. For Crespo it's a journey that can take more than two hours of her day - each way.

Traffic jams cause problems all over the world, and not just for drivers, but in Sao Paulo they have become more than a nuisance. Heavy traffic is an integral part of life and culture in this vast city of more than 11m people."We have become slaves of traffic and we have to plan our lives around it," says Crespo.

Another example of the absolute insanity of our modern technology. For the record, the problem is not technology, it’s how we use it. Just because we have the capability for personal mobility does not mean every single individual in a society must have their own personal carriage at their beck-and-call and people and businesses should be scattered across the landscape willy-nilly. This is the problem when we decide that everything should develop anarchically according to "the market" without planning or foresight.

Can anyone imagine traffic jams of this scale occurring in fifty years’ time with electric vehicles taking place of the gas ones? Nah, didn’t think so. And I’ve read elsewhere (sorry, didn’t bookmark) that China and India are contemplating putting restrictions on car ownership.

Social Services

This short article about why Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party is so popular is telling:
Basically, the Golden Dawn, as I learned when I was in Greece, operates as a kind of quasi services mafia. If you're an (ethnically Greek) old lady worried about getting robbed when you go to the ATM, a menacing Golden Dawn thug will escort you.

According to a source in Greece we heard from today, the Golden Dawn will also perform rent collections on behalf of landlords. The Golden Dawn even distribute free food and have opened up a Grocery store for Greeks only.

With the public sector hobbled and unable to provide what it used to to the citizens, the Golden Dawn has been able to step into a vacuum.... what's key is how the Golden Dawn has positioned itself as an aid to many Greeks at a time when other institutions are decaying.

When central authority declines, those who can step in and provide financial security and stability for the average person take over. This dynamic has been repeated throughout history down through the present day. The warlords that stepped in after the fall of the Roman Empire became the European nobility for millennia. Dmitry Orlov has often written about how street gangs and former KGB became the de facto authorities in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Communism. In the Middle East, groups like Hezbollah provide social insurance, schools, pensions and meal programs (widows whose husbands are killed fighting are taken care of for life). In Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere tribal warlords rule in the absence of central authority. Will we see that exact same dynamic in the West as capitalism breaks down? In America, I imagine it will be the evangelical mega-churches which will fill this role (and have a similar far-right agenda as GD). Orlov puts forward drug gangs, which already rule much of Mexico.

Libertarians often say that government is bad and we need to rely on each other instead. But this is where that often leads, and the results aren't pretty.

More and more it seems to me like the centralized authority of the empire or nation-state is a transient phenomenon in human history. Perhaps we’re just not wired to cooperate on that level.

UPDATE: Via The Guardian (UK):
Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party is increasingly assuming the role of law enforcement officers on the streets of the bankrupt country, with mounting evidence that Athenians are being openly directed by police to seek help from the neo-Nazi group, analysts, activists and lawyers say.

In return, a growing number of Greek crime victims have come to see the party, whose symbol bears an uncanny resemblance to the swastika, as a "protector".

One victim of crime, an eloquent US-trained civil servant, told the Guardian of her family's shock at being referred to the party when her mother recently called the police following an incident involving Albanian immigrants in their downtown apartment block.

"They immediately said if it's an issue with immigrants go to Golden Dawn," said the 38-year-old, who fearing for her job and safety, spoke only on condition of anonymity. "We don't condone Golden Dawn but there is an acute social problem that has come with the breakdown of feeling of security among lower and middle class people in the urban centre," she said. "If the police and official mechanism can't deliver and there is no recourse to justice, then you have to turn to other maverick solutions."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Perils Of Complex Systems

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while.

There is a tendency on the part of some to see things like aquaponics systems, urban farms, foodscrapers, and the like as some sort of salvation to our troubled economic and agricultural systems. One can fund such articles tinged with delirious optimism and breathless enthusiasm littering many of the pages of the Peak Oil blogosphere and ‘alternative’ press.  “Plentiful jobs producing fresh foods right in the city,” claim the proponents. The economy of the future. It’s an appealing vision to be sure. But does it square with reality?

In fact, the reality can often be quite different.

Enter Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics facility; one of the largest in the country, right in my neighborhood. Recently, my local paper published a very long, very detailed expose about SWO. My city is justifiably proud of being considered an epicenter of the urban agriculture revolution, largely because of the work of one man – Will Allen of Growing Power, who is mentioned in the article. People naturally want to attract these businesses and want them to succeed as Growing Power has done (attracting among other things the attention of President Obama and a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant). Thus, criticizing such businesses is something done with great reluctance in the local press. Nevertheless, the article takes an unflinching look at the troubles Sweet Water has faced since its founding. It serves as a case study in how the best of intentions sometimes go awry and how difficult it is to actually make these ideas work from a financial and managerial standpoint. It’s also a cautionary tale of how seeing such things through the lens of starry-eyed idealism is often a recipe for failure.
    Last year, six employees departed the company, which wasn’t paying them and which they said wasn’t listening to them about how to make their systems more sustainable. Fish were dying. Greenhouses sat empty. The money, it seemed, had dried up. Then, with the help of Alderman Tony Zielinski, the city tossed Sweet Water and its skeleton crew a quarter-million-dollar life preserver. This year, back from the brink, the company is using that money to reinvent their systems based on the work of a Scottish aquaponics expert. These new outdoor systems, set to debut this month, once again dangle the lure of profitability…Sweet Water’s critics believe passionately in aquaponics. They believe that good science results in efficient systems. But they remain unconvinced that the soul of their former company’s management has changed for the better.

The article is quite long, and worth reading, but I’ll give you the executive summary. Sweet Water Organics was started by two roofers inspired by the small experimental aquaponics system Will Allen has installed in his Growing Power facility. The founders espoused a grand vision of bringing back the tradition of the local fish fry, which was once fuelled by the abundant perch found in lake Michigan, back to Milwaukee by converting the aged, abandoned and rusting industrial facilities dotting the city into food-producing fish farms. This was part of a larger vision of Milwaukee as a poster child for the new, futuristic post-industrial self-sufficient, food-based economy with industrial urban agriculture stepping into the place once occupied by industrial factory work. They began by converting a large abandoned former Harnishfeger factory building which they used for roofing material storage, taking advantage of the sunken concrete pits and building up extensive complex piping systems above them to cycle the water and grow the vegetables.

But they bit off a bit more than they could chew, and soon began experiencing sick fish, dead plants, and mass die-offs. Employees who believed passionately in the idea were hired, but soon became disgruntled as their suggestions were ignored. Mass burials of fish without permits attracted fire from employees and city officials. Strategic fish culls were made, and outside scientific expertise was brought in to advise. Money problems began mounting, and employees were not being paid.
    Theoretically, the aquaponics system is a closed loop with an optimal balance among fish, plants, and bacteria. Ideally, the nutrient-rich water itself does not leave the system except for evaporation and biological uptake. Dissolved fish waste fertilizes plants; and plants and bacteria clean the water for fish. That’s what makes the recirculating system closed. It’s like a mini ecosystem.

    Optimal ratios of plants and fish depend on multiple factors—pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, fish feed, fish type, plant type, water volume, flow rates—but can be calculated for a given system. Load an aquaponics system with too many fish, too few plants, or too few bacteria, however, and nutrients become excessive. Instead of becoming a resource, waste builds up. The water chemistry becomes toxic. Bad things happen.

    “We were losing hundreds of fish per day,” recalled Hull, former director of horticulture, research, and development, who lamented the “inhumaneness” of the overcrowded system of fish. Hull said 1,700 “just died” during the winter before the loan application. He described fish swimming in their own waste, nipping at each other, and dying of asphyxiation.

    A veterinarian was called in over the objection of Fraundorf, according to Hull. “Josh stated that he didn’t want the vet called in, saying he’d rather keep ‘getting rid of the fish,’” Hull said. “At that time there was no money and no way to implement the humane and legal disposal of that many fish.”
“Approximately 15,000 tilapia, housed in a 9,000 gallon aquaponic recirculating system tank, had suffered a loss of greater than 1,500 fish in a two week period…” wrote veterinarian David M. Vandever of Innovative Veterinary Services of Franklin, Wis. “The findings suggest a plurality of stresses resulting in the poor vitality of this population.” The factors included poor water quality, using fish feed with too much protein, and high population density, the vet wrote. Some fish were even believed to be spawning in the tanks. In necropsies of five fish, the vet noted missing fins, inflamed gills, friable livers, and distended gall bladders.
Investors balked at the size of the operation and the money required to keep it going. The employees claimed inept management and jumped ship. Finally, the city stepped in and provided a large forgivable loan which came with the requirement that the business create forty full-time jobs within the next several years.
 Even with the public investment, a year later Sweet Water is still finding it difficult to secure private investment. “In answer to the question, ‘Are you adequately financed?’ the answer is not at this point in time,” Mervis said. Mervis said they hope to be adequately financed within the next year to 18 months, raising money both through additional equity offerings and through private and public equity sources.

“It’s still a challenge,” he acknowledged.
The owners along with the alderman who supported the loan came under further scrutiny when some claimed the loan money was used to pay the owners first and the delinquent back wages owed to the former employees (the claim was later proven false).

Now the owners are using the money to embark on new systems developed in England to try and bolster the business.
Last October for a week, Sweet Water brought in a rock star of the aquaponics world, Scotland’s Charlie Price, who operates his own consultancy, Aquaponics UK. Price recommended a totally new direction—in essence, shallower gravity-fed channels for more plants and smaller above-ground tanks with fewer fish.

Mervis called Price’s model a “quantum leap” in technology. Fraundorf called Price’s system “the best one on the planet.”
Former employees have been paid what little they were owed and are still withering in their criticism of mismanagement and deceptive advertising on the part of the owners. Others are skeptical whether the aquaponics idea was ever meant to scale the way it was at Sweet Water and whether the idealism and hype can live up to reality. Several other attempts to start similar businesses in the area are also profiled.
    [Former employees]depict a toxic work environment at Sweet Water in the second half of 2010 through early 2011 characterized by unpaid work, extremely low morale, and a deep disconnect between management and labor. They described a Sweet Water struggling to attract and retain private investors before their commercial-scale aquaponics systems were profitable. They also said their suggestions to improve Sweet Water’s systems were ignored or incompletely funded.
“Sustainability is not the hook in a business proposal—it is a term used to describe the practices of a company that is fighting for change and to supply a healthy future for a community. In no way has the leadership shown any interest in creating a better living for anyone other than themselves.”
Of course, this is just one isolated case, but there are several lessons to be drawn from this. One is that for all the logic and benefits of an idea, in the hard calculus of the current economic environment, many of these ideas just aren’t viable. Look, we all want these ideas to succeed. But we have to be realistic. The problem with certain people is that they tend be dreamers, but lack the heard-headed business savvy required to make such dreams a reality. Others claim that nothing will work besides the status quo, and that any new idea is not practical. Neither of these attitudes is helpful and will not serve us well in the difficult years ahead.  Unfortunately, there are too few instances of visionary dreamers and hard-nosed pragmatists working together to actually get things done, as we split into warring ideological camps.

Another is that these systems are enormously complex and prone to failure. You’ve got to really know what you’re doing, and there’s little margin for error. What if we depended on these systems for food and had no other recourse? This is what some advocates of many of these systems seem to be suggesting we do.
    “One of the key issues to make any aquaponics business sustainable,” Binkowski said, “is to have a team of skilled and experienced people running the operation—especially in the technical and scientific side.” —Fred Binkowski, UWM Great Lakes WATER Institute scientist
Another is that some ideas do not always scale appropriately. Sure you can do it in a garage or experimental facility. But what about larger? Can it go big?  Can you sell enough to make a profit? This was a major downfall of Sweet Water:
In fact, both Fraundorf and Mervis admit that they believe Sweet Water’s indoor systems—the wood structures of plant beds above tanks sawed into the concrete foundation of the former Harnischfeger crane factory—are not commercially scalable.These systems—which Fraundorf and Mervis now call Phases 1, 2, 3, and 4—were attempts to scale up Will Allen’s much smaller Growing Power aquaponics model, systems Mervis said depended on outside funding and were designed to provide the social benefit of local food.

“Although I have a great deal of respect for what Will Allen has done for the urban farming movement, the aquaponics systems that Growing Power employs are based on a decades-old design that could not have competed with commercial levels of production even then,” Hull said. “With utmost honesty, Will has stated at his own workshops that a person couldn’t make a profitable business using his aquaponic designs and methods.” Energy, infrastructure, and heating costs plus the aforementioned fish density and nutrient cycling issues make big, indoor centralized systems with insufficient area for plants less appealing, Fraundorf has discovered. “This, inside [indoor large Allen-style system in an old building], has its challenges and would not really be what I would recommend,” Fraundorf said.

Several summers ago for an unrelated story, the Compass spoke with Will Allen of Milwaukee’s Growing Power farm and asked him about Sweet Water, which was just then coming into vogue. Allen said Growing Power had been fish farming for 16 years and that the biggest challenge wasn’t constructing the systems but maintaining them. His advice then? Start small, learn the systems, then build bigger.
This is also something to keep in mind with all the new “miracle’ energy sources out there – algae-based fuels, biodiesel, ethanol, wind power, molten salt energy storage, fuel cells, electric cars etc. Can such ideas scale? Can they be maintained indefinitely? These small experiments are just that. But in the real world, many things can go wrong, from bankruptcy to mismanagement to unforeseen events. SWO's story offers us a cautionary tale.

But I think the main lesson is to note that Milwaukee sits on one of the largest fresh water lakes on the planet, and is crisscrossed with wide rivers and small ponds. Yet despite this, we cannot eat the fish in any of these abundant aquatic ecosystems and are forced to rely on farmed and imported fish. Need I point insanity  of setting up these complex systems in abandoned factory buildings in a city that is shot through with some of the most abundant fresh water sources on the face of the earth? I must, because nobody seems to get it. What if we could just, I don’t know use the lake and rivers for fish? How crazy is that? But we can’t because we’ve ruined them with pollution, possibly forever. Stories like Sweet Water’s illustrate the price we pay for that. What nature once provided for free we must now attempt to recreate at an enormous cost in energy, materials, complexity, etc. And this is true throughout society. This point is critical.

The idea of replacing healthy functioning ecosystems with technically complex, expensive, knowledge-intensive mechanical systems is inherently problematic and probably doomed to failure. SWOs story is a cautionary tale of the difficulties that are glossed over and ignored in the technophilists' embrace of vertical farms, lab-grown meat, GMO seeds, hydroponics, genetic engineering, ocean-surface farming and the like.

Maybe we should think about what it would take to clean up Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee river so that they can once again produce healthy, abundant fish for us to eat. Maybe we should think about reclaiming and restoring healthy, thriving ecosystems for growing our food before plowing ahead with the latest cutting-edge technology. We can do these things. Why don't we?

NOTE: This article is supplementary to this piece - Vertical Farms and Lab-Grown Meat: Have We Lost Our Minds?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Early Humans

Humans hunted for meat as long as two million years ago:
Ancient humans used complex hunting techniques to ambush and kill antelopes, gazelles, wildebeest and other large animals at least two million years ago. The discovery – made by anthropologist Professor Henry Bunn of Wisconsin University – pushes back the definitive date for the beginning of systematic human hunting by hundreds of thousands of years.

Two million years ago, our human ancestors were small-brained apemen and in the past many scientists have assumed the meat they ate had been gathered from animals that had died from natural causes or had been left behind by lions, leopards and other carnivores.

But Bunn argues that our apemen ancestors, although primitive and fairly puny, were capable of ambushing herds of large animals after carefully selecting individuals for slaughter. The appearance of this skill so early in our evolutionary past has key implications for the development of human intellect.

Eventually, it seems humans were on the menu:
All told, the evidence from Gough’s Cave suggests to Bello that cannibalism there was both practical and ritualistic. She explained that cannibalism for survival—think Donner party—seems unlikely because the site contains a huge number of animal remains, suggesting that people were not starving. In addition, if they were eating their own kind out of sheer desperation, Bellow says, they probably would not have taken so much care in removing the brain and instead would have just smashed the skull to access the fatty organ inside. Instead, she argues that processing of the human body was a tradition—people at Gough’s ate the bodies of their fellow humans for nutrition rather than letting good meat go to waste, and then produced the skull cups for ritual. In fact, Bello suspects that, given the practical benefits, cannibalism was relatively common in the past.

How Do You Say Dumpster Diving In Spanish?

MADRID — On a recent evening, a hip-looking young woman was sorting through a stack of crates outside a fruit and vegetable store here in the working-class neighborhood of Vallecas as it shut down for the night.

At first glance, she looked as if she might be a store employee. But no. The young woman was looking through the day’s trash for her next meal. Already, she had found a dozen aging potatoes she deemed edible and loaded them onto a luggage cart parked nearby.

“When you don’t have enough money,” she said, declining to give her name, “this is what there is.”

The woman, 33, said that she had once worked at the post office but that her unemployment benefits had run out and she was living now on 400 euros a month, about $520. She was squatting with some friends in a building that still had water and electricity, while collecting “a little of everything” from the garbage after stores closed and the streets were dark and quiet.

Such survival tactics are becoming increasingly commonplace here, with an unemployment rate over 50 percent among young people and more and more households having adults without jobs. So pervasive is the problem of scavenging that one Spanish city has resorted to installing locks on supermarket trash bins as a public health precaution.
Spain Recoils as Its Hungry Forage Trash Bins for a Next Meal (NYT)

 I don't think I have to tell you that this is a glimpse of the future for all of the industrialized West. In the U.S., it's already pretty popular.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Underclass

Two quick hits:
The United States is caught in a vicious cycle largely of its own making. Rising income inequality is breeding more inequality in educational opportunity, which results in greater inequality in educational attainment. That, in turn, undermines the intergenerational mobility upon which Americans have always prided themselves and perpetuates income inequality from generation to generation.

This dynamic all but guarantees a permanent underclass. Indeed, the process is already under way: An American child’s future income is already more dependent on his or her parents’ income than a child born in most other developed countries.
Income Inequality and Educational Opportunity (Economix, NYT)

And for this cohort, trapped in poverty, their life span is actually shrinking:
Researchers have long documented that the most educated Americans were making the biggest gains in life expectancy, but now they say mortality data show that life spans for some of the least educated Americans are actually contracting. Four studies in recent years identified modest declines, but a new one that looks separately at Americans lacking a high school diploma found disturbingly sharp drops in life expectancy for whites in this group. Experts not involved in the new research said its findings were persuasive.

The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least educated Americans who lack health insurance.

The steepest declines were for white women without a high school diploma, who lost five years of life between 1990 and 2008, said S. Jay Olshansky, a public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the lead investigator on the study, published last month in Health Affairs. By 2008, life expectancy for black women without a high school diploma had surpassed that of white women of the same education level, the study found.

White men lacking a high school diploma lost three years of life. Life expectancy for both blacks and Hispanics of the same education level rose, the data showed. But blacks over all do not live as long as whites, while Hispanics live longer than both whites and blacks.

“We’re used to looking at groups and complaining that their mortality rates haven’t improved fast enough, but to actually go backward is deeply troubling,” said John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging, who was not involved in the new study.
Life Spans Shrink for Least-Educated Whites in the U.S. (NYT)

To repeat: this is what collapse looks like. As Naked Capitalism opined, the U.S. is looking more and more like post-Soviet Russia. Lowered birth rates and shortened life spans constitute a die-off as much as any apocalyptic event. The first article also notes the social collapse amoung households which are single-parent families and stuck in poverty because of it (because a household now requires two people to work to be affluent, thanks to the dynamic of the modern economy). Is it surprising that poor whites are reacting exactly the same as blacks when their family-supporting jobs were exported and automated and replaced with minimum wage service labor?

Thanks to our aversion to 'socialism', children are now confined to a permanent underclass because of the mistakes of their parents. As someone who has been fighting against the mistakes of their parents for their entire life, I can speak from experience about how the United States is nowhere near the best place to overcome that dynamic.

Of course, there is an unstated assumption that this is not the express goal. That sorting people by income, denying them jobs unless they have degrees that cost thousands of dollars and withholding medical care so that they die sooner is not by design on the part of elites. In fact, everything in the U.S. from how we inhabit the landscape to expensive select colleges is designed to keep people in the exact same class they were born into. These things are not to help people move up the ladder - they are designed to keep them right were they are. Otherwise college would be subsidized (as it is in many other countries), and the quality of your education and your social peers would not be determined exclusively by what ZIP code you live in and how much mortgage the bank will loan you.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Meanwhile In Spain

First the bad news - pharmacies in Spain are running out of essential drugs putting lives at risk
The sign on the wall tells the story. "Important information. The government of Valencia owe this pharmacy for all the medicine we have dispensed to you in January, February, March, April and May". And not just this pharmacy. The government of Valencia - which runs the health system - owes a grand total of half a billion euros to the region's pharmacies.

Paula guides me into that back room that exists in all pharmacies, where the prescription drugs are kept. The problem is, now, there are not many drugs left. "Look, this drawer is usually full," she says, pointing to where the suppositories are kept. Now there are only two packets." She opens the fridge. "Look," she says, "we are down to our last packs of insulin. We just have no money to buy the stock."

I ask: "What happens if several people come in on the same day for insulin?" She makes two fingers walk along the back of her wrist. "They have to go around the neighbourhood to see if anybody else has it. It is the same with drugs for heart disease, stroke, anti-retrovirals."
Where did the money go?
Journalists sacked when a local paper closed have taken to doing "citizen journalism" - which today means organising a coach trip around all the various projects Valencia built in the good times.

There is the Formula One racetrack, which runs right through the city so the roads had to be redesigned. But the city has lost its Formula One race. There is the America's Cup dock, with huge sheds for ocean-going yachts and a massive white control tower. But there is no more America's Cup racing in Valencia. There is the Opera House, a cross between the one in Sydney and something you would imagine only in your more disturbed dreams - 400 million euros to build, 40 million a year to run - 15 performances a year. 
Valencia: A Spanish city without medicine (BBC)

But remember, the "invisible hand" is the ideal allocator of resources. Never mind, the government messed it all up. And there is a burgeoning separatist movement in Catalonia:
Madrid (CNN) -- Throngs of demonstrators filled Barcelona's streets Tuesday in a regional independence protest fueled by Spain's economic crisis.

September 11 is known as Catalonia's national day, and for years there have been demonstrations pushing for independence in the northeastern region. But Tuesday's turnout was larger than expected, Spanish newspapers reported.

Hours before, Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia's regional government, attended official ceremonies commemorating the day. Later, he issued a warning: if Spain's central government in Madrid doesn't give the region more control over its tax dollars, independence could be an option.

"If we do not reach a financial agreement with the central government, the path to freedom for Catalonia is open," he said.
Throngs push Catalan independence amid Spain's economic crisis (CNN)
In the latest in a series of bold challenges to the Spanish government, a top Catalan administration official on Friday warned that the region’s parliament could put legal mechanisms in motion that would lead to a unilateral separatist drive for Catalonia.

In a radio interview, Catalonia spokesman Francesc Homs said that a referendum within four years “was a possibility,” and that independence could also be “obtained by way of a parliamentary vote after an election.”
Catalan official makes fresh warning to government over independence (EL PAÍS)


Saturday Night Music:

Buenas noches, amigos

Friday, September 21, 2012

Carbon Democracy

Fascinating review of what looks to be another must have for the aspiring radical sociologist: Carbon Democracy by Tim Mitchell. From what I can gather, the book's thesis is that our energy sources had a huge impact on how modern political arrangements developed. Most people are cognizant of the fact that slavery, a remarkably durable institution originating almost at the very dawn of civilization, faded out as a legal source of labor only when energy slaves powered by fossil fuels became the primary source of wealth. But it turns out the widespread use of coal and the subsequent switch (more accurately, addition) of oil had profound results on how politics developed in the twentieth century.

Because coal is a labor-intensive commodity to mine and transport and was the vital fuel source which powered both domestic industry and military might, it was was vulnerable to strikes, and hence to the labor movement. Most worker concessions during the Paleotechnic regime came about as the result of coal strikes:
 Eventually, England began using coal to fuel its economy, leading to substantial economic growth and imperial strength. Coal, though, presented a challenge to the governing elites, since the characteristics of coal, with its labor intensive extraction methods, were quite vulnerable to strikes. Coal was hard to transport, and miners operated underground in a collaborative manner. Once on the surface, coal had to be moved by fixed networks of trains. There were multiple bottlenecks here, and in the late 19th century, for the first time, the energy system of the industrialized world was reliant on workers who could withhold their labor and block a key resource. This translated directly into political power.
The British elites figured that as long as they depended on domestic labor for their coal, that labor had a pretty potent weapon to use, and hence switched to oil based in the Middle East:
Whereas Britain had very small discovered deposits of oil (large discoveries in the North Sea would come much later), oil had different physical characteristics than coal. It could be drilled, and easily shipped through pipelines and oil tankers, thus rendering it far less vulnerable to labor slowdowns and sabotage. Churchill, in switching away from coal, was in effect trading dependence on Welsh labor and his left-wing political opponents at home for dependence on corporate cartels operating in the Middle East. Not coincidentally, Britain occupied Iraq in a brutal and controversial period during the 1920s, foreshadowing America’s later actions in the region.
And far from being a scarce commodity until recently, the problem was that it was too abundant, leading to efforts to restrict the supply and corner the market so as to maximize profits and political power:
Mitchell points out that the problem of oil has never, until recently, been that it is a scarce commodity, but that it is a surplus commodity. We had too much of it. And the central problem that this created was now how to find more of it, but how to ensure that oil cartels profiting from high oil prices could make sure that very few new oil finds, especially from the massive fields in the Middle East, came online. Far from a hardy band of entrepreneurs searching for more oil, the story of oil is one of parasitic cartels manipulating governments and inventing concepts like mandates, self-determination, and national security to ensure they could retain high profits selling a widely available commodity. Mitchell wrote, “The companies had learned from Standard Oil that it was easier to control the means of transportation. Building railways and pipelines required negotiating rights from the government, which typically granted the further right to prevent the establishing of competing lines. After obtaining the rights, the aim was usually to delay construction, but without losing the right. Iraq became the key place to sabotage the production of oil. It would retain that role through much of the twentieth century, and reacquire it in a different way in the twenty-first century.”
And much of the creation of the modern economy as something separate from the wider society is due to the use of coal and imported oil:
It is here that Carbon Democracy truly shines. Mitchell has reinterpreted the creation of much of our democratic apparatus, from labor laws to minimum wages to the right to vote to resistance to imperialism, as the struggle between different types of carbon-based fuels and the various characteristics of the labor required to extract and use them. Oil and how it flows is modern democracy.  Even the creation of modern economics, he shows, the notion of the “economy” itself, is a function of coal and oil. The first massive collections of government statistics, Mitchell points out, were attempts to quantify coal reserves. And in the early 20th century, there were two different conceptions of economics, one by economists like Thorsten Veblen that focused on the scarcity of resources, and the other by those who ultimately became neoclassical and Keynesian, which assumed infinite resources. The latter ended up winning, because the massive surplus of oil allowed for industrial agriculture to solve our food supply issues, and petrochemicals to provide a virtually infinite array of material shapes and sizes for any number of uses.

In the 1930s, Keynes essentially invented the concept of the “economy”, as a sphere where political choices should not intrude. This created the period of “managed democracy”, which lasted until the 1970s. Oil was the fuel sources that created this pseudo-democratic system, which involved strict financial controls to stop oil speculators from driving the price of oil down and crimping oil company profits. Glass-Steagall and the strict financial laws set up in the Depression, as it turns out, had at their core the protection of the oil industry (political scientist Tom Ferguson echoes this interpretation in his work). Similarly, the unraveling of this system because of higher oil demand in the 1970s led the neoliberals to gradually break this system of financial regulation.
Once the industrialized world became addicted to oil, it was time to break the back of labor:
In addition to what would become the World Bank and IMF, Keynes wanted to establish an international body to manage commodities, including and especially oil. While no institution was ever set up to do this, a framework of national security and “the Cold War” managed to keep Middle Eastern and Russian offline for a long period of time. In addition, the oil companies used public relations to encourage a high oil consumption lifestyle in the United States, so as to keep the price of oil as high as possible. In Europe, Mitchell encourages a revised view of the Marshall plan, as a joint European and American elite plan to break European labor power...Thus, the European Community, which is currently in the thrall of a monetary crisis, was created out of a fierce political battle over oil, coal, profits and labor. And now, with the Cold War over and the European infrastructure dependent on labor-immune oil, the welfare states of the Eurozone are being destroyed. Carbon Democracy, as a historical narrative, explains why this is not a an anomaly. Chucking labor and social insurance overboard is a feature, not a bug, of the European experiment. Only by understanding the relationship of Europe to coal and oil does this become apparent, and can we cast aside quaint notions of democracy that ignore realpolitik.
And now that conventional oil sources have peaked and begun their inexorable decline:
The ultimate conclusion of the book is that a climate crisis, and peak oil, are putting our deeply held political arrangements in a period of uncertainty and crisis. Once you’ve gone on this journey through time, and you understand Mitchell’s narrative that our very intellectual horizons are dominated by oil as a surplus and infinite commodity, it becomes hard to conclude that our cultures will look remotely similar to what they look like today in just a few years.
How Coal Brought Us Democracy And Oil Ended It: Lessons From The New Book "Carbon Democracy" (Naked Capitalism)

It also explains why the wind, water and peat powered Middle Ages was a time of political decentralization and local economies, and why there is so much resistance in certain quarters to wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, etc. - they would lead once again to decentralization and local control of energy supplies. Nuclear would, of course, maintain centralization, which is why it is preferred over those other renewable sources.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Race Is Artificial

As you can tell by the articles below, the concept of race and nations is really rather artificial:
When applied to the question of who is descended from whom, the results can surprise even the professionals. That's because geneticists normally study biological information - DNA - that people inherit from just one of their parents. Just like a surname, or the male lines of descent quoted in the Bible, these generate lineages that shrink or expand rather slowly. That's why we expect the proportion of Smiths in the phone-book to fluctuate only a little from decade to decade.

The surprise comes if we look at inheritance from both parents. Here, the numbers change drastically as the generations go by. For instance, we have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. Each generation back, we multiply the number by two. This leads to what is called an exponential increase: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 and so on. It's not long before we hit huge numbers. Take the specific case of Jesus and King David.

The number of generations between them is at least 35. Luke lists 42 generations down the male line, and Matthew gives an incomplete list of 27. Jesus Christ would have had more than 34 billion potential ancestors These numbers agree reasonably well with an average time between generations of 25 or 30 years - an estimate taken from documented historical records from Iceland and Canada.

So back in the time of David, Jesus would have had at least 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 (35 times); in other words 2^35 - or more than 34 billion potential ancestors. That's far more than the total population of the world, of course. This is a good illustration of what's been called the "genealogical paradox".

You are unlikely to be the product of inbreeding between recent ancestors. So initially, your increase in ancestors will indeed be almost exponential. But as your family tree increases to thousands upon thousands, you will inevitably find many obscure branches that have interbred. That's when the numbers start tailing off.

Even so, by that time, you will have collected a large number of people in your ancestry. So it's not surprising that any two people in any one country probably won't need to go back many generations before finding a common ancestor. More specifically, imagine the simplest case of a population of a constant size - say a million (the approximate size of the Holy Land at the time of Jesus). If people in this population meet and breed at random, it turns out that you only need to go back an average of 20 generations before you find an individual who is a common ancestor of everyone in the population.
Family trees: Tracing the world's ancestor (BBC)

In the future will we all look like Brazilians? Fine by me, plus it gives me an excuse to post a picture of a Brazilian hottie at the top of this post:
It really happened: Six generations of inbreeding spanning the years 1800 to 1960 caused an isolated population of humans living in the hills of Kentucky to become blue-skinned.

The startlingly blue people, all descendants of a French immigrant named Martin Fugate and still living near his original settlement on the banks of Troublesome Creek when hematologists studied them in the 1960s, turned out to have a rare blood condition called methemoglobinemia. A recessive gene was pairing with itself to change the molecular composition of their blood, making it brown as opposed to red, which tinted their skin blue.

The hematologists' attempt to trace the history of the mutant gene revealed a gnarly Fugate family tree, contorted by many an intermarriage between first cousins, aunts and nephews, and the like over the generations. Dennis Stacy, whose great-great-grandfather on both his mother's and father's sides was the same person — Henley Fugate — offered a simple explanation for the rampant interbreeding: In the old days in eastern Kentucky, Stacy said, "There was no roads."

It sounds sordid at worst and lazy at best, but in fact, the Fugates' tale is a miniature version of the story of human coupling since time immemorial. Local populations interbreed, causing a sharing of genes, a resulting in-group physical resemblance and, eventually, identification as a distinct race or ethnic group.

According to Stephen Stearns, a Yale professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, before the invention of the bicycle, the average distance between the birthplaces of spouses in England was 1 mile (1.6 kilometers). During the latter half of the 19th century, bikes upped the distance men went courting to 30 miles (48 km), on average. Scholars have identified similar patterns in other European countries. Widespread use of bicycles stimulated the grading and paving of roads, lending credence to the Fugate clan's excuse and making way for the introduction of automobiles. Love's horizons have kept expanding ever since.

"The distance between the birthplaces of parents has continued to increase since the invention of the bicycle, making it now easy, if not standard, for parents to have been born on different continents," Stearns told Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Meanwhile, many other physical traits will simply blend together.
"Most of the traits that we think of as distinguishing different groups (hair color, skin color, hair curliness, facial features, eye shape) are controlled by multiple genes, so they don't follow a simple dominant/recessive pattern," McDonald explained. "In those cases, blending will make people look more similar over time." It's not straightforward to predict how blending of genes affects physical appearances, but McDonald said the tendency is for such traits to average out.
The average American skin and hair color will probably darken slightly, and there will be fewer people with very dark or very pale skin and hair. A population forged from the long-term mixing of Africans, Native Americans and Europeans serves as an archetype for the future of humanity, Stearns said: A few centuries from now, we're all going to look like Brazilians.
Will Humans Eventually All Look Like Brazilians? (Live Science)

Of course Peak Oil might put a stop to that. At least we still have boats. And did you know all blue-eyed people are descended from a single individual? For the record, my eyes are hazel.

Selling Out

Yet another broke municipality going hat in hand to corporate America for crumbs from the table. This one happens to be mine:
If Wisconsin is open for business, as Gov. Scott Walker likes to say, Milwaukee may soon be for sale.

A Common Council committee on Wednesday endorsed a plan in which the city would consider sponsorships, advertising and even naming rights from companies or nonprofits as a way of generating new revenue. The possibilities seem endless. There are more than 1,200 trash and recycling receptacles, 3,400 city vehicles, four city parking garages, parking meters, and dozens of city-owned buildings. Not to mention 61 different recreational facilities, the Milwaukee Water Works and even websites and mobile apps. There could be ad inserts in your tax bill. Or ads on the city's official cable television channel. Is a parking meter sponsored by a towing company far behind? Or a recreational building with a Nike logo? How about vending machines sponsored by Coke or Pepsi?

Ald. Mike Murphy, who is leading efforts to get the program started, said the idea, officially called the Milwaukee Civic Partnership Initiative, could potentially generate millions of dollars of revenue.

The idea is not new. Nationwide, cities are putting up the "For Sale" sign as a way of finding new money in an era of governmental belt-tightening. In New York, the beverage company Snapple paid the city $33 million to be the official city beverage. In San Diego, the cellphone provider Sprint pays the city $50,000 a year for the right to be called the official cellphone provider of the city. In other cases, an in-kind arrangement is made. In some cities, Toyota donates vehicles used for city services.

Mark Nicolini, the city's budget director, told aldermen at the Finance and Personnel Committee that, since 2003, the city has seen a reduction of $79 million in inflation-adjusted state shared revenue, and $4.5 million in state transportation aid. In addition, the city's investments generate much less in interest than they used to.

"This holds a significant amount of potential," Nicolini said.

Under the proposed resolution, the council would have to sign off on any partnership.

"We're not going to sell our soul here," Murphy said.

Yes we are alderman Murphy, you ignorant toady, yes we are. Such passes the city once run by sewer socialism.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Global Agriculture

From Tyler Cowen:
The green revolution has slowed since the early 1990s, and it has become harder to bolster crop yields, as I have discussed in my book, “An Economist Gets Lunch.” And recent research by Dani Rodrik, a professor of international political economy at Harvard, indicates that agricultural productivity improvements are among the hardest to transmit from one nation to another.

For all its importance to human well-being, agriculture seems to be one of the lagging economic sectors of the last two decades. That means the problem of hunger is flaring up again, as the World Bank and several United Nations agencies have recently warned.

Consider Africa, which is often considered to have turned a corner and to be headed toward steady growth. The expansion of the African middle class and the decline in child mortality rates are both quite real, but the advances have not been balanced — and agriculture lags behind.

In a recent address, Michael Lipton, an economist and research professor at Sussex University in Britain, offered a sobering look at Africa’s agricultural productivity. He suggests that Rwanda and Ghana are gaining, but that most of the continent is not. Production and calorie intake per capita don’t seem to be higher today than they were in the early 1960s. It remains an issue how Africa’s growing population will be fed.

One huge problem is that the price of fertilizer in Africa is often two to four times the world price. Yet African soil and rainfall make much of the continent subpar for growing food. In other words, the region that probably needs fertilizer the most also has to pay the most for it, and much of Africa doesn’t have the prosperity to make this an easy stretch. The high prices result in large part from infrastructure and trade networks that aren’t developed enough to create a low-cost and competitive market. And the problem could worsen if economic troubles in China distract it from its beneficial investments in African roads and harbors.
World Hunger: The Problem Left Behind (New York Times)

His solution? End ethanol subsidies and put food higher on the global agenda. Good as far as it goes, but the always useful Colin Tudge has more:
Objective data, of the kind that the scientists and economists who advise the powers-that-be claim to base their ideas upon, suggests that the new ways aren't working – not, at least, if we feel that the job of agriculture is to produce good food. Worldwide, 1 billion people of the present 7 billion are chronically undernourished, while another billion are chronically overnourished – such that according to an article in Nature in May the world population of diabetics now exceeds the combined population of the US and Canada, and almost all because of diet. Damage to the world at large is huge. Mainly because of industrial farming, half of all species on Earth could be extinct by the end of the century. Agriculture occupies 40% of the planet's land, but its pollution endangers creatures everywhere, including the seas, where farming run-off is destroying the coral reefs.

But the corporate-government complex that runs our lives is committed to the all-out financial competition of the neoliberal global market. So British farmers in British conditions in a British social context are head to head with peasant Africans and US mega-corporates and Ukrainian grain barons (or would be were it not for the EU subsidies) – while farming as a whole must compete for investment with cars, weapons, casinos and hair-dressing.


If we don't acknowledge the moral obligation to provide good food for everyone without wrecking the rest, then what does morality mean? There is no excuse for the present failure – for sound biological thinking shows that good food for everyone should be eminently possible. But report after report – the kind governments and big organisations choose to override – tells us that the best way to ensure that everyone is well fed, sustainably and securely, is through farms that are mixed, complex and low-input (quasi-organic). These must be labour-intensive (or there can be no complexity), so there is no advantage in them being large scale. Such farms are traditional in structure, but they need not be traditional in technology. They would benefit from good technologies and science.

But the small-to-medium mixed farms that could feed us well and provide good jobs are absolutely at odds with the modern perceived imperative to maximise wealth. To survive in the fight for profit, skilled labour must be replaced with big machines and agrochemistry; the husbandry must be simplified – monoculture rules – and all must be done on the largest possible scale. Although industrial farming doesn't feed everybody, has led to mass unemployment and the poverty and despair that go with it, and is wrecking the fabric of the world, it must prevail because it produces piles of short-term cash for the people who are calling the shots.
Why the world needs a renaissance of small farming (The Guardian)

And recently on Energy Bulletin, from Lester Brown:
 As food supplies tighten, the geopolitics of food is fast overshadowing the geopolitics of oil. The first signs of trouble came in 2007, when world grain production fell behind demand. Grain and soybean prices started to climb, doubling by mid-2008. In response, many exporting countries tried to curb rising domestic food prices by restricting exports. Among them were Russia and Argentina, two leading wheat exporters. Viet Nam, the world’s number two rice exporter, banned exports entirely in the early months of 2008. Several other smaller grain suppliers also restricted exports. 
With key suppliers restricting or banning exports, importing countries panicked. No longer able to rely on the market for grain, several countries tried to negotiate long-term grain supply agreements with exporting countries. The Philippines, a chronically rice-deficit country, attempted to negotiate a three-year agreement with Viet Nam for 1.5 million tons of rice per year. A delegation of Yemenis traveled to Australia with a similar goal in mind for wheat, but they had no luck. In a seller’s market, exporters were reluctant to make long-term commitments. 
Fearing they might not be able to buy needed grain from the market, some of the more affluent countries, led by Saudi Arabia, China, and South Korea, then took the unusual step of buying or leasing land long term in other countries on which to grow food for themselves. These land acquisitions have since grown rapidly in number. Most of them are in Africa. Among the principal destinations for land hunters are Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Sudan, each of them countries where millions of people are being sustained with food donations from the U.N. World Food Programme.

As of mid-2012, hundreds of land acquisition deals had been negotiated or were under negotiation, some of them exceeding a million acres. A 2011 World Bank analysis of these “land grabs” reported that at least 140 million acres were involved—an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the United States. This onslaught of land acquisitions has become a land rush as governments, agribusiness firms, and private investors seek control of land wherever they can find it. Such acquisitions also typically involve water rights, meaning that land grabs potentially affect downstream countries as well. Any water extracted from the upper Nile River basin to irrigate newly planted crops in Ethiopia, Sudan, or South Sudan, for instance, will now not reach Egypt, upending the delicate water politics of the Nile by adding new countries that Egypt must compete with for water.

The potential for conflict is high. Many of the land deals have been made in secret, and much of the time the land involved was already being farmed by villagers when it was sold or leased. Often those already farming the land were neither consulted nor even informed of the new arrangements. And because there typically are no formal land titles in many developing-country villages, the farmers who lost their land have had little support for bringing their cases to court.

The bottom line is that it is becoming much more difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up with the world’s rapidly growing demand for grain. World grain stocks were drawn down a decade ago and we have not been able to rebuild them. If we cannot do so, we can expect that with the next poor harvest, food prices will soar, hunger will intensify, and food unrest will spread. We are entering a time of chronic food scarcity, one that is leading to intense competition for control of land and water resources—in short, a new geopolitics of food.
Full planet, empty plates: The new geopolitics of food scarcity (Energy Bulletin)

Latest Civilizational Blowback

Study finds BPA associated with obesity in kids — A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that children with higher levels of BPA in their bodies are more likely to be obese. Liz Szabo at USA Today notes that it is "the first large-scale, nationally representative study to link an environmental chemical with obesity in children and teens." Doesn't mean BPA (bisphenol A) *caused* the obesity, but the association is interesting—particularly given the growing body of research linking BPA and cancer. (BoingBoing)

Superweeds pose GM-resistant challenge for farmers (BBC)

A large body of evidence now suggests that Alzheimer’s is primarily a metabolic disease. Some scientists have gone so far as to rename it. They call it diabetes type 3...Plenty of research still needs to be done. But if the current indications are correct, Alzheimer’s disease could be another catastrophic impact of the junk food industry, and the worst discovered so far. Our governments, as they are in the face of all our major crises, appear to be incapable of responding.

In this country as in many others, the government’s answer to the multiple disasters caused by the consumption of too much sugar and fat is to call on both companies and consumers to regulate themselves.

The Mind Thieves (George Monbiot)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Class War In The Open

So I’m glad Romney’s comments to wealthy millionaire donors are getting some attention, because it’s finally out in the open what the ruling classes really thing of the rest of us.This is what the ruling class says behind closed doors. One of the best things I read came from a blogger at Forbes (!!!):
This is where more than thirty years of confusing wealth with virtue and deriding Americans who aren’t impossibly rich as indolent and entitled slackers will leave you:  with a multi-millionaire candidate for president who made his fortune by depriving other people of their livelihood, who doesn’t even bother to hide his contempt for the ever-increasing number of economic losers engendered by our one percent economy, a world his own policies and actions helped create.

Even Marie Antoinette thought the peasants deserved cake.
Even the venal plutocrats of the Gilded Age realized that they ultimately owed their fortunes to the labor of the coal miner, the seamstress, the ironworker and the farmer, and that it was only through their good graces and the limited application of violence that they were allowed to keep their gains. Today’s plutocrats think their fortunes spring ex nihilo from their own greatness as they ship jobs to slave wage countries and gamble in the stock market. The fact that so fewer of us have outlets to sell our labor power is a matter of concern. But it has nothing to do with laziness; the capitalistic system is breaking down. And the ruling class berates the unemployed masses for their own indolence. Nice. As bad as Obama might be, do we want to hand the reins of power to someone has nothing but sheer and utter contempt for nearly half of the American population?

I’ve had interactions with a lot of these ‘corporate executive’ types. And let me tell you: Romney is not an anomaly: the majority of them believe the exact same thing! That’s why he made those comments at a exclusive fundraiser behind the closed doors of Richistan. These people despise us. They truly believe that those of us who work for a paycheck are just useless eaters. They believe that without their hatching deals and the golf courses, schmoozing their friends in luxury boxes at sporting events and gambling on investment vehicles the rest of us who are chained to our desks eight hours a day would be starving and shivering in the dark, unable to lift a finger to help ourselves without the megalomaniacal John Galts of the world. They see the rest of us as nothing but parasitic ticks on the body of society who need to be deloused. We need to be pulled from the government teat to fend for ourselves and claw what we can from the impersonal market.  I’ve personally heard the beneficiaries of nepotism decry "government socialism." I guess what I’m trying to say is this:

Ayn Rand’s sociopathic doctrine has become the prevailing ethos of the ruling class!

It’s not confined to America, compare Romney’s comments to those of Australia’s richest woman, who also inherited a vast fortune yet believes she pulled herself up by her bootstraps:
Just in case you were beginning to think rich people were deeply misunderstood and that they feel the pain of those who are less fortunate, here's the world's wealthiest woman, Australian mining tycoon Gina Rinehart, with some helpful advice."If you're jealous of those with more money, don't just sit there and complain," she said in a magazine piece. "Do something to make more money yourself -- spend less time drinking or smoking and socialising, and more time working."

Rinehart made her money the old-fashioned way: She inherited it. Her family iron ore prospecting fortune of $30.1 billion makes her Australia's wealthiest person and the richest woman on the planet."There is no monopoly on becoming a millionaire," she said by way of encouragement. "Become one of those people who work hard, invest and build, and at the same time create employment and opportunities for others."

Why are people poor? Rinehart blamed what she described as "socialist," anti-business government policies, and urged Australian officials to lower the minimum wage and cut taxes. "The millionaires and billionaires who choose to invest in Australia are actually those who most help the poor and our young," she said. "This secret needs to be spread widely."

These beliefs are endemic among the ruling class. Who’s really fighting the class war here? Even the kings and queens of the Feudal ages had some sense of noblesse oblige. Today’s plutocrats see us as nothing more than cattle to be milked and slaughtered. As a Republican legislator put it recently, “do not feed the animals.”

We are truly ruled by monsters.

And see also the heaping helping of Horatio Alger served up at the Republican convention, and Romney’s comments that college wasn’t necessary since if you were hard worker you could just borrow a few thousand dollars from Mom and Dad to start a sandwich business. The people at the top are megalomaniacal sociopaths, and they got where they are precisely because they are megalomaniacal sociopaths (or the children of same). Forget Peak Everything, this is the reason why society is going over a cliff and people are preparing for collapse and civil war.

These people are the real takers: they take the labor of all of us who show up for work day after day – the teachers, the policemen, the engineers, the inventors, the accountants, the plumbers, the network administrators, by doing nothing more than manipulating the financial system. Work creates wealth, not sitting around in board meetings. Need I trot out once again the chart showing how all of our productivity gains have accrued to the super-rich? Sorry if that sounds dangerously Marxist.

And of course plenty of people on the government teat will vote for Romney anyway. To the uneducated white, rural class which reliably votes Republican, the 47 percent Romney refers to is seen by them as the image at the top of the article: Chedda gets Cheddar. This is what they are railing against, neck wattle quivering as the ride to Tea Party rallies on their Medicare scooters. And yes, they do think that represents 47 percent of all Americans. Republican have been mining this for decades – I’m sure you’ve seen Romney’s most prevalent ad (which is completely false) about Obama eliminating the Welfare to work requirements (“they just send you a check”). Not too subtle is it? As Jay Gould said, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”
In Chisago County, Minn., The Times’s reporters spoke with residents who supported the Tea Party and its proposed cuts to federal spending, even while they admitted they could not get by without government support. Tea Party aficionados, and many on the extreme right of the Republican party for that matter, are typically characterized as self-sufficient middle class folk, angry about sustaining the idle poor with their tax dollars. Chisago County revealed a different aspect of this anger: economically struggling Americans professing a robust individualism and self-determination, frustrated with their failures to achieve that ideal.

Why the stubborn insistence on self-determination, in spite of the facts? One might say there is something profoundly American in this. It’s our fierce individualism shining through. Residents of Chisago County are clinging to notions of past self-reliance before the recession, before the welfare state. It’s admirable in a way. Alternately, it evokes the delusional autonomy of Freud’s poor ego.

These people, like many across the nation, rely on government assistance, but pretend they don’t. They even resent the government for their reliance. If they looked closely though, they’d see that we are all thoroughly saturated with government assistance in this country: farm subsidies that lower food prices for us all, mortgage interest deductions that disproportionately favor the rich, federal mortgage guarantees that keep interest rates low, a bloated Department of Defense that sustains entire sectors of the economy and puts hundreds of thousands of people to work. We can hardly fathom the depth of our dependence on government, and pretend we are bold individualists instead.

As we are in an election year, the persistence of this delusion has manifested itself politically, particularly as a foundation in the Republican Party ideology — from Ron Paul’s insistence during the primaries that the government shouldn’t intervene to help the uninsured even when they are deathly ill, to Rick Santorum’s maligning of public schools, to Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate. There is no doubt that radical individualism will remain a central selling point of their campaign. Ryan’s signature work, his proposal for the federal budget, calls for drastic cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, Pell grants and job training programs, among others. To no surprise, as The New Yorker revealed in a recent profile of Ryan, the home district that supports him is boosted by considerable government largesse.

Of course the professed individualists have an easy time cutting services for the poor. But this is misguided. There are many counties across the nation that, like Chisago County, might feel insulated from the trials of the destitute. Perhaps this is because they are able to ignore the poverty in their midst, or because they are rather homogeneous and geographically removed from concentrations of poverty, like urban ghettos. But the fate of the middle class counties and urban ghettos is entwined. When the poor are left to rot in their misery, the misery does not stay contained. It harms us all. The crime radiates, the misery offends, it debases the whole. Individuals, much less communities, cannot be insulated from it.

Thanks to a decades-long safety net, we have forgotten the trials of living without it. This is why, the historian Tony Judt argued, it’s easy for some to speak fondly of a world without government: we can’t fully imagine or recall what it’s like. We can’t really appreciate the horrors Upton Sinclair witnessed in the Chicago slaughterhouses before regulation, or the burden of living without Social Security and Medicare to look forward to. Thus, we can entertain nostalgia for a time when everyone pulled his own weight, bore his own risk, and was the master of his destiny. That time was a myth. But the notion of self-reliance is also a fallacy.
Deluded Individualism (New York Times)
It never ceases to amaze me that only four years after the American people were ready to storm the streets with torches and pitchforks and hang Wall Street bankers from the nearest lamppost, almost half of America is ready to elect a plutocrat so stereotypical of Wall Street that even Hollywood casting directors would have a difficult time doing better. That after thirty years of deindustrialization hollowing out Middle America, Middle America is the center of support for a slick takeover artist who inherited millions and whose job was parachuting in to companies and stripping them to funnel as much wealth as possible to Wall Street, regardless of consequences. That in the worst economy since the great depression, and the greatest gap between rich and poor since that time, a candidate can run on a central platform of gutting the social safety net and cutting taxes on the very richest of the rich, and have the support of nearly half of all voters. This guy had a horse in Olympics fer chrissakes!

Incidentally, here is the wellspring for their mode of thought: Producerism.

Producerism, sometimes referred to as "producer radicalism," is a right-wing populist ideology which holds that the productive members of society are being exploited by parasitic elements at both the top and bottom of the social and economic structure.

Except it’s kind of a limited producerism insofar as it focuses exclusively on parasites at the bottom of the system and sees the people at the top as heroic wealth creators whose fortunes are exactly in proportion with what they’ve contributed to society. It’s part of the three other pillars of modern conservative ideology: The Objectivist Movement, the Just World Hypothesis and (to a limited extent) Christian Reconstructionism. I encourage you to click on the links and read the Wikipedia entries on these ideological movements so you can understand what the ideals of the ruling class are. See also Calvinism, Social Darwinism, The Horatio Alger Myth, and the Powell Memorandum.

I’ll give the last word to this excellent post from Morris Berman:

Finally, without being explicit, the film does suggest that there is something mentally unbalanced, if not downright sociopathic, about the American ruling class. The top 1% could care less about society at large, is the impression we get from this documentary; the only thing on their minds is profit. Recent years have seen the publication of a fair number of articles claiming that psychological studies of such people show that they have very little capacity for empathy, along with very high dopamine levels in the brain, which also depresses empathy and keeps them hyped up, always “on the go.” These people cannot grasp, as former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall says at one point in the movie, that taxes are the price of civilization; that every society must have civil institutions; and that the ideology of every man for himself is the antithesis of civilization—the ideology of lunatics, if I may embellish on his remarks.