Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Religion, Anarchy, and Consumerism

I've recently seen a number of folks suggesting that the advent of Christianity was the start of our collective downfall, at least in the western world if not elsewhere. Though I've never been particularly enamored with it myself (considering myself an atheist since my early teens), I was dismissive of the idea that Christianity is to blame. Lately though, after a little more thought, I'm starting to see some truth in it.  It's not just a matter of Christianity's own dogma so as much as it is the destruction of the belief system Christianity replaced.

The bible speaks of dominion over nature, and thus fosters the attitude that now dominates the globe. While Christianity is not the sole religion at fault here, it's certainly a major player. I'm no theologian, but I suspect most other major religions of hierarchy have similar attributes. Nature is full of "resources" for us to use, to invest in, to deplete until they're gone. Anyone who rejects that notion is marginalized (or, in many places, shot).

Before the advent of Christianity, most of our own ancestors worshiped nature in one form or another, as do most indigenous groups.  It was really the spread of empire, such as that of Rome (ever wonder how the Roman-Catholic church got the first part of its name?), which drove out the pagan religions that dominated Europe. While the term "pagan" still has a derisive feel to it, I'd have to say I hold it in higher regard than that which replaced it.

A favorite blogger and author, John Michael Greer, is a druid. My first thought of a self proclaimed druid was someone who overdosed on Dungeons and Dragons at a young age, but the more I've learned, the more I've come to respect it. Worshiping that which our lives depend upon makes far more sense to me than worshiping a mysterious pre-packaged deity who (for some strange reason) only talks through popes, kings (divine right, anyone?), and other people who wish to control or extract wealth from us peasants.

If you're gullible enough to send a few bucks to the 700 club, they'll pray for you. If you'll submit to the hierarchy in this life (send your kids to fight in their wars, pay them your taxes, stay put in your mind-numbing job), you'll get your due in a magical land of make-believe they call "heaven".  Well... that comes after you're dead, of course.  Perhaps we should ask our bankers if they'll take mortgage payments after they die too?

With regards to worship and respect for nature, I'm often reminded of the little bit of native culture I've been exposed to, such as this quote attributed to Chief Seattle (Sealth).

"The Earth does not belong to man; man belongs to Earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

Considering that many are now discussing the likelihood of near-term human extinction, I'd say this quote seems increasingly prescient as well as foreboding. Would we all be lemmings sprinting for the cliff edge if we had more (or any) respect for the natural world, or if we still recognized ourselves as a part of it?  I suspect that most of our pagan ancestors would view us as insane.

When someone is referred to as an anarchist, my first thought was of some 20's-ish guy in black throwing rocks or a molotov cocktail at police, generally causing mayhem or participating in a riot. My impression, though common, was wrong.  

Anarchy is simply the absence of hierarchy, and is the way humans have spent most of their time on this planet. Dmitry Orlov goes into great detail on the subject. Only in the last 5,000 years or so have many of us moved to the hierarchical structure of civilization, with it's attendant submission to "leaders" and typically imbued with a decidedly non-nature based religious order.  

As Sebastian Junger details in his latest (excellent) book, Tribe, many early American settlers defected from their hierarchical society in favor of the anarchy they found among the native Americans. Some noted with dismay that this societal defection was never towards their own society, but always towards the natives.  It even became so prevalent that laws were passed to discourage it. Settlers who were "rescued" from the natives often ran off to rejoin them and return to the society they preferred.

Early missionaries, in their attempts to subjugate through religious indoctrination, found that they were quite difficult to work with because they were generally happier than their European counterparts. They weren't used to following or issuing orders. The were likewise not interested in promises of a better life when they were already quite content with the one they had.

Tom Lewis, in his excellent blog series "The Days after Tomorrow", details much of this, and gives the following quote from Paul Le June, the father superior of all Jesuit missionaries in New France, in reference to his impression of the natives:
“... as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them gives himself to the devil to acquire wealth.”
Instilling material wants through the introduction of trade goods soon helped turn the tide, as the natives became consumers forever in need of some new manufactured good. Eventually they lost the knowledge and ability to provide for themselves, and thus became dependent consumers as you and I are today. Perhaps some of them have retained enough of their culture to lead us back out of the abyss we're spiraling into, if we're lucky.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Road Ahead

I'll start out with my take on the last decade, and what exactly has occurred. As always, the interaction of energy, finance, and environment are of primary importance. No single variable can be viewed in isolation, though that's typically what I see.

First of all, we are now past the peak in conventional global oil production (roughly 2006-2008 depending upon how it's defined) -- a key inflection point which will define our lives going forward. The US and Canada pretend to have dodged this bullet through the substitution of shale oil and tar sands, but it turns out that the engine of industry doesn't run so well on these energy sources. They're both exceptionally poor in terms of energy returns and have exceptionally high costs of production. It's kind of like living in Flint, discovering your water is full of lead, and deciding to water your garden with Evian instead of tap water. The problem seems to be solved until you max out your credit limit.

Both watering your garden with Evian and running an industrial economy on unconventional oil are technically feasible, but our finances can only handle it for so long. Perhaps more importantly, it's economically feasible only because large investment banks desperate for positive returns were willing to risk it despite the fact that it's a bad investment.

Are the banks stupid? Not at all! They know full well that any failures will be "socialized", just as they were with the housing bubble they built with liar-loans. They know full well that all of us will be on the hook for bailing out their "too big to fail" fannies. How will we pay? With "austerity" measures and further crumbling infrastructure. It will reach the point where we essentially get nothing in return for the taxes we pay.

Relatively few countries are willing to go through the trouble of fracking or tar sand extraction, and those who have are only dabbling in it rather than going whole-hog as we've done here. I'm quite convinced that our taxpayer-backed banks are the reason. This is why the US and Canada are the only real shining stars of energy production in the last decade. It's a facade that won't last, and one which is in fact already crumbling. Global oil production -- inclusive of all our unconventional nonsense -- is once again in decline. It's permanent and will accelerate in the years to come.

Energy and finance are inextricably linked. If you heard stories from your grandparents about how they grew up, chances are that you heard tales of "making do" with much less than we expect nowadays. That's precisely because we produced less energy than we do today. Energy *is* wealth, and a decline in energy production leads to a decline in wealth.

A case in point is a friend of ours, a now retired participant in the massive Teamster's Central States Pension Fund. Having already cut his promised benefit by about 40%, they recently proposed cutting the remaining benefit by 60% for all participants. The fund managers submitted this proposal to the US Treasury for approval, which rejected it on the grounds that it simply wasn't enough of a cut to save the pension.

This fund is far from the only pension in serious trouble, and I'd suspect is quite representative of most funds. As our energy supplies deplete and grow ever more expensive to produce, the economy stops growing. The system of debt and interest -- the very foundation of all retirement investments -- simply cannot be sustained in a zero growth economy. Thus, I don't expect retirement to remain a possibility for most of us. For reasons I'll explain below, this shouldn't be a problem for most people my age or younger.

Even "secure" savings held in banks are highly suspect. Banks are highly leveraged (especially so in Europe), and are themselves dependent upon economic growth (and debt this growth enables) for their very existence. In anticipation of problems to come, US laws were changed to allow for the "temporary" confiscation of savings in what is referred to as a bail in. This has already occurred with some European banks, but I don't expect it to remain on that side of the Atlantic.

Why aren't we in a depression right now?

I would argue that we are in fact in a depression, though that's not really the right word for it. The word "depression" implies a temporary condition from which we'll soon recover. Our condition is permanent and degenerative. The peak oil inflection point flipped the global economy from the growth phase to a contraction phase.

This condition has been ameliorated to some extent by central bank policies of quantitative easing, or essentially the printing of more money. Under pre-peak conditions, this would have lead to hyper inflation, but that is not the case anymore. Economic contraction leads to deflation, which is equally damaging. Quantitative easing policies have eased this trend, but now that banks have reached zero (or even negative) interest rates, we're at the end of the rope. I expect to see deflation take hold over the next few years in a big way. Prices of most things will drop, but they will become increasingly unaffordable as money grows ever more scarce.

Suffice it to say that we'll soon be telling our grandchildren stories of a wealthy past far exceeding their wildest dreams.


If energy and finance were the only things that mattered, I would expect our future to be a tolerable decline, perhaps with the end of this century looking something more like the early 1800s (based upon the energy production being roughly equal) in terms of relative wealth or the lack thereof. While it seems safe to assume that we could still be poor but retain some of today's technology, I'm not so sure about that. I think that the many systems upon which today's technology depend (such as the electric grid) will simply fail, leaving technology that resembles that of the pre-industrial era.

The downhill side of the energy depletion curve is steeper than the uphill side, the result of a phenomena referred to as the Seneca cliff. Decline is never as gradual nor as pleasant as economic ascent, as attempts to maintain decaying infrastructure left over from previous periods of greater wealth put a significant drag on economic activity.  I would expect wars to be quite common as countries fight for remaining resources, though the wars should decrease in scale as the energy required for large-scale global warfare would become impossible to secure.

Our future won't just be a story of protracted decline punctuated with frequent warfare, and environmental degradation is the reason. As was predicted by a computer modeling group at MIT about the time I was born, our environment will take a significant hit in coming decades. The "Limits to Growth" modelers didn't know of all the positive feedback loops we now know of, and their model thus ran for many decades into the future. Based upon what I've learned about these positive feedback loops, the model probably doesn't need to stretch more than 30 years out into the future.

Climate change is the star of the show here, and it's far more than the commonly portrayed increase in temperatures, rising sea levels, or the extinction of polar bears. Climate change is the means by which we are currently committing societal harakiri, though I can't say for certain which of the many side-effects will be the coup de grace.

Most people seem to assume a linear progression with climate change;  something that will give us plenty of warning before things get really bad. Unfortunately for all involved, the changes are definitely not linear, and are increasing exponentially as a result of feedback loops.

For an example of the exponential change we need to accustom ourselves to, let's suppose I put a handful of duckweed plants in a pond. Duckweed grows quickly, and can nearly double itself in a day.  Assuming that it takes 30 days for the duckweed to entirely cover the surface of the pond, when will be the duckweed cover half of the pond surface -- the point at which people are likely to say we have a problem? On day 29. Similarly for us, major events such as the "blue sea event" of an ice-free arctic (likely to occur this year), herald the fact that we are nearing the end of a viable biosphere.

The leading contender at the moment appears to be ocean stratification (which was very much in play during the recent El-Nino in the north Pacific) growing to the point where hydrogen-sulfide emitting bacteria dominate the anoxic sub-surface waters and emit this toxic gas in large quantities. It has played a role in many previous extinctions.

Professor Guy Mcpherson has documented dozens of positive feedback loops that are greatly multiplying the effects of our carbon emissions. He suggests we may all be extinct as early as 2020, and has fairly convincing evidence to back it up. I certainly hope he's wrong, but my own views have moved reluctantly in the direction of his over the last several years. My somewhat less educated guess gives us perhaps 20 years. There are probably some negative feedback loops which may ameliorate the effects of Guy's positive feedbacks, but none appear likely to overcome them.

Governments are increasingly discussing the necessity of geo-engineering. All the suggestions I've seen have serious negative side effects, are enormously expensive, and by no means guarantee a fix. They would likely be unaffordable in an era of economic expansion, much less the era of contraction we're tipping into. Most focus on addressing temperature but not CO2, and would buy us a little time at best.

So what's the value in this knowledge? Is this "useless intelligence" of the sort that drives people to depression and a feeling of disempowerment? I don't think so. While we're still here, we have the ability to improve our chances of survival, or at the very least we have the chance to delay what may now be inevitable. Either way, it should influence the decisions that define how we live our lives each day. If you're sacrificing aspects of your life today in hopes of reaping rewards 20 or 30 years from now, you may want to reconsider. Likewise, for those of us whose current lifestyle is pushing down hard on the climate change gas-pedal (a given here in the US), it's imperative that we reconsider what we've come to think of as "normal".

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Peeper's Puddle

It was an annoyance at first -- a low spot in the barnyard where water collected after a rain. The horses would mix it up into a muddy mess. Our ducks -- Peeper and Bean -- were the initial pond engineers that got it to hold water. I think their constant churning of the mud as they filter for insects caused it to stratify, with the silt and clay settling in a sealing layer that held in the water. It gained a degree of permanence, but was still just a puddle.

It was about five years ago now that I decided to help them out, digging first with a three-point scoop on the tractor and then some more with the horses using a slip-scraper. It held water, but was still pretty small at first, and summertime turned it into a tub of red or green algae, as it captured much of the barnyard effluent.

Mosquitoes laid their eggs there, but mosquito eating insects arrived in short order and kept them in check. Frogs, and especially toads, started to congregate there, mostly during spring mating season.

The toads have become so numerous that I have to be careful not to step on them after it rains, when herds of them can be roaming the yard. The pond is now the site of their annual spring orgy, where they sing all day and become so focused on making tadpoles that they don't mind me standing right over them. Curious about a writhing mass of something I could see in the water a few weeks back, I investigated to find four males all clinging to a dead female that they had probably drowned in their amorous enthusiasm.
Giant water bug

It didn't take too long for Henry to discover the pond and start seining it for signs of life with his butterfly net. He found all sorts of bugs and insects that I knew next to nothing about: giant venomous water-bugs (aka "the eastern toe-biter"), water-scorpions, giant diving beetles, backswimmers, boatmen, and a bunch of others too numerous to mention. Before long he had an aquarium of them in his room where we could watch them all eat each other.
water scorpion

Visiting geese
A few years ago, we were given two dozen Rouen ducks. Their constant nibbling really stirred up the mud and sealed the pond even more, to the point that the water is rarely more than a few inches below maximum height now.

It's big enough to skate on in the winter, and couldn't be a more convenient skating rink. Henry has
 made great use of it, playing hockey with a stick for a puck, and our border collie as the opposing team.

When the ice melted this spring, he made another interesting discovery. A bluegill we'd released into the pond last summer had apparently survived until the winter, despite the pond being perhaps 3' deep at the center. With a little more depth (and probably a bubbler) perhaps we could keep some there year round.

Birds are making great use of it now. We have a sandpiper or two who regularly visits to march endlessly around the shore while searching for bugs in the mud. Occasionally we get a few canada geese or mallards, and have even had herons and sandhill cranes visit a few times. Doves regularly come down for a drink, and starlings use it for their baths. Barn swallows use it to collect mud for their nests. They swoop through the air above it for hatching insects throughout the day, while bats take the night shift.

A number of painted turtles have taken up residence, and regularly sun themselves on the log we've placed in the water for them. There are snapping turtles as well, but they don't show themselves so often.

I have big plans for the pond. More digging to make it deeper, and perhaps introducing some cat-tails or other aquatic plants. I suspect that more places to hide or lay eggs would benefit many of the residents. Until I'm moved to do so, I'll just keep watching. It's some of the best entertainment around.