Showing posts with label perception. Show all posts
Showing posts with label perception. Show all posts

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Climate Mash

"Much of our obsession about knowing in advance what is coming has to do with fear."

  Our favorite subjects for this blog are climate change, energy and civilization collapse. We spend equal amounts of time describing the remedies for these evils — permaculture, ecovillage, biochar, and carbon farming, for instance, because we hold out a sliver of hope humanity still might be able to redirect our otherwise dismal prospects.

Malcolm X said "tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” Much of our obsession about knowing in advance what is coming has to do with fear. We feel insecure about the future. We sense a chill wind blowing, a storm approaching. It is visceral. It is in the zeitgeist. No one has to speak of it, we all … just … know. Can we find a safe place? Can we lay in some supplies? What about our loved ones? What about our previous life, possessions, skills, interests?

But to prepare we first need to know. What are we talking about? Can we know, even in rough outlines? And if we get that right, can we do anything now that would change the outcome to something more to our liking?

That is why we study climate, and write about it, and try to understand. It is a really angry beast at the gates. A hundred thousand years ago it gave us an extraordinary gift, and by delicately, respectfully, reverently abiding within a dance of life and death with that gift, we won an extraordinary, unprecedented run of the perfect global climate for mammalian life, capped by 12000 years of exceptionally good days. And what did we do? We blew it off for an infatuation with muscle cars and motorcycles.

Here then is what we learned about the future in 2014.

Our special thanks for the many who contributed to this report:

BBC News
Bill McKibben
Biochar Bob Cirino
Biochar Solutions
Biodiversity for a Livable Climate   
Blue Sky Biochar
Carbon Roots International
Eoin Campbell / GoPro Camera
Fox News
General Anthony Zinni
General Chuck Wald
General Gordon Sullivan
General Ron Keyes
General Wesley Clark
Global National
Global Observatory
Guy McPherson
Hugh McLaughlin
Jason A YouTube Channel
Jeffrey Wallin
Johannes Lehmann
Josiah Hunt
Kelpie Wilson
Michael Wittman
Mycorrhizal Applications, Inc.
Natalia Shakova
Paul Beckwith
Peter Sinclair
Peter Wadhaus
Rear Admiral David Titley
Right Livelihood Foundation
Rosie Boycott
Stuart Scott, UPFSI
The Biochar Company
Tom Goreau, Global Coral Reef Alliance
Tom Newmark, The Carbon Underground
Tufts University
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
US Biochar Initiative
Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn

Sunday, November 9, 2014


"In the event of the worst case - where successive 75-year-old earthen dams built by the Corps of Engineers under emergency wartime conditions are overtopped or washed away -  there is no plan to protect these riverside nuclear reactors."

Many of our friends have been urgently sending us warnings of an impending nuclear catastrophe unfolding in the mountains of East Tennessee. We have been watching the situation but it is almost more interesting to watch the watchers because their overreaching reaction has many tendrils in pop culture, prepping, panic, and how we get our news in the internet age.

Not so long ago news travelled very slowly. In 1845 it took President Polk six months to get a message to California. Thanks to the Pony Express, details of Lincoln's inaugural address covered the distance between the end of the telegraph line at Fort Kearny and Sacramento in seven days, 17 hours. Lag time like that made a significant difference in events because it offered more time to ponder risks and consequences. Mail lag even had a role in keeping California out of the War of Northern Aggression.

Today we hear a beep from our phone and glance down to see what a Facebook or Twitter friend on the other side of the planet is laughing about. We can glance at our tablet to see development of a superstorm in the Bering Strait as viewed from a weather satellite. If we want to get the lowdown on something not in our news stream, we google it, fully aware that Google is filtering our results based on our particular confirmation bias.

Newspapers and the big broadcast news channels are so slow, bland, geriatric and clueless that it is no wonder their business model is circling the toilet bowl of communications history.

But at the edges of the new media map there be dragons. We cocoon within psychographic cabals of those who share our views, seldom venturing out to listen to those who disagree. Social rifts are widening. In the last US election, as earlier in Australia, Canada and the UK, conservative media trounced liberal media. That was no accident. Elections were purchased by Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and consortia of K-street lobbyists funded by repatriating Citizens United petrodollars from Riyadh and Beijing.

Sinkhole, Guatemala
The emerging insularity is ominous. Jim Inhofe, who thinks that global warming is a hoax because God has a plan for us, was elevated this week to Chairman of the most powerful environmental Senate Committee. The fossil fuel industry won virtually every election, national and local. More subsidies for drilling and burning and repeal of EPA restraints are virtually assured. Any gains made by and NRDC in the past 5 years will be reversed as certainly as night follows day.

So, naturally, when we read something in the press about a pending man-made disaster, we have to wonder. Whose ax is being ground here?

According to the Tennessee Valley Authority's news release, published in Hydroworld on November 5th:
During dam inspection Oct. 20, engineers at the South Fork Holston River facility [Boone Lake Dam] became aware of a sinkhole at the base of the 160-foot-high (49 meters) by 1,532-foot-long (467 meters) structure. The sinkhole was repaired, but on Oct. 26, inspectors discovered seepage near the location of the original sinkhole, underwater in the rip rap rocks – a foundation or sustaining wall of stones or chunks of concrete used as armor – near the shoreline. TVA said the seepage included “a small amount of water and sediment seeping from the riverbank below the dam.”

The Appalachian Mountains have a karst terrain that is especially susceptible to sinkholes. This region is also the high ground in the TVA system of 29 hydroelectric dams and pumped-storage. In karst domains – underlain with carbonate bedrock such as limestone or dolomite  rainwater percolating though organic soil becomes slightly acidic and slowly dissolves the bedrock.  Over time, it creates extensive systems of underground fissures and caves. East Tennessee is pocked with chains of sinkholes, or solution valleys, where streams mysteriously disappear underground.

After discovering the leak below Boone Lake Dam, TVA immediately began a drawdown to lower levels of the lake so it could better examine the problem. Sinkholes are not uncommon and TVA has had to deal with them before. It dealt with a similar hole at Bear Creek, Alabama in 2007 by backfilling with concrete, but the leak discovered in October has been termed "an uncommon occurrence" because of both its size and location.

TVA will be bringing down the water level about 20 feet to the necessary mark of 1,362 feet (elevation), the “winter pool” level. The rate at which the TVA can drop the lake maxes out at 2 feet per day and it expects to have the drawdown done by November 10. Jennifer Dodd, a TVA dam safety officer said it could turn out that the cause of the sinkhole and seepage is a broken pipe or drain, but they won’t know until the water’s low enough.

TVA normally lowers its lakes and reservoirs in winter to provide better flood control above cities like Chattanooga. TVA can store about 5 million acre-feet of water during the winter flood season to protect that city from extreme storms, something we may see more of in the future unless Chairman Inhofe puts in a good word with God. Chattanooga's river storage capacity can and has been used to reduce flood crests on the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois by as much as 3 feet.

All this is very reassuring until one digs a little more. Boone Lake is a V-shaped reservoir that extends for 17 miles up the South Fork Holston and for 15 miles up the Watauga. When it was filled for the first time it submerged 154 homes, 104 graves and 18 miles of roads. It holds 25 billion gallons of water. Although the dam is more than half the length of a football field tall, when full the water behind the dam is 35 yards above the normal level of the river below.

If the dam were to suddenly break, that 100-foot high wall of water would gradually diminish in height over distance. It would almost certainly sweep away the state highway bridge only a mile downstream and most likely would overflow and demolish other cross-river structures between Kingsport and Chattanooga.

The Army Ammo Dump is one of 9 Superfund sites near the river.

Kingsport would be hardest hit, because it is close to Boone Lake and has lots of vulnerable low-lying riverside infrastructure such as natural gas, oil storage depots and sewage treatment plants. There is plenty of new, high-priced development along the river shore below Kingsport, and some schools and prisons, too.

Eastman Chemical is the largest toxic waste Superfund site in Kingsport
Fifty miles downstream from Kingsport is the Cherokee Dam, hastily erected (just 16 months to build) on the Holston in 1943 to power uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project. Although now retired from generating power, the Cherokee's old cement face, masking three earthen saddle dams, stands 170 feet above the river to hold back a 59-mile reservoir. If Cherokee's 75-year-old Corps of Engineers earthworks fails, it would add 244 billion gallons of water to the 25 billion gallons brought along from Boone Lake and send it all crashing down to scour the river banks at Jefferson City and Knoxville. Jefferson City has 4 Superfund sites, Knoxville 39.

Fifty miles below Knoxville stands the Fort Loudon Dam, another monument to wartime Corps of Engineers speed records for dam construction (just 12 months from start to finish). Ft Loudon holds back another 36 billion gallons, not including the channel that brings in overflow from the Tellico Dam. If Ft Loudon is destroyed or even overtopped by the wall of inrushing water, its waters dump into those of Watts Bar Lake, just below and contiguous.

Watts Bar is named for a large sandbar in the Tennessee River
The cities of Kingston, Spring City, Harriman, Loudon, Rockwood, and Lenoir City all have waterfronts on Watts Bar Lake.

This secret NRC internal report, performed after Fukushima by the agency's nuclear reactor safety division and labeled "Not for Public Release," describes what happens when such a wall of water arrives from Watts Bar Lake to Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, north of Chattanooga. It begins by describing the scenario for another facility, Duke Power's Oconee Nuclear Station, should the dam at Jocassee fail:

"Studies that are more recent have also computed flood heights that exceed the flood protection elevation of the Standby Shutdown Facility (Duke 2009, Duke 2010). The following timeline (which begins with dam failure) is an excerpt from a Duke letter, which is based on results of the 1992 study:

Notification from Jocassee would occur before a total failure of the dam; however, for purposes of this timeline, notification is assumed to be at the same time the dam fails. Following notification from Jocassee, the reactor(s) are shutdown within approximately 1 hour. The predicted flood would reach [Oconee Nuclear Station] in approximately 5 hours, at which time the [Standby Shutdown Facility] walls are overtopped. The [Standby Shutdown Facility] is assumed to fail, with no time delay, following the flood level exceeding the height of the [Standby Shutdown Facility] wall. The failure scenario results are predicted such that core damage occurs in about 8 to 9 hours following the dam break and containment failure in about 59 to 68 hours. When containment failure occurs, significant dose to the public would result. (Duke 2008, att 2, p.10)

The above timeline assumes that Oconee Nuclear Station is notified at the same time the dam fails. The licensee considers this assumption to be conservative because the plant expects notification before the dam fails (the dam is monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). The licensee notes that the above timeline does not account for the recession of floodwaters, which is postulated to occur 10 hours following dam failure (5 hours following onset of flooding at the site) (Duke 2008, att 2, p.10).


There are 12 major dams upstream from Watts Bar Nuclear Plant (the locations of six of these dams are shown in Figure 10). As indicated above, Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is located less than 2 miles from Watts Bar Dam. The remaining 11 dams are located at further distances. In the plant UFSARs, seismically-induced dam failure is considered under the operating basis earthquake coincident with one-half the PMF [presumed maximum flood] as well as during a safe-shutdown earthquake coincident with a 25-year storm. … Under this event, the West Saddle Dike at Watts Bar Dam would be overtopped and breached (WBNP 2010, p. 2.4-38, WBNP n.d., p. 2.4-31). The licensee provides results that indicate arbitrary removal of Watts Bar Dam during a 25-year flood would result in a flood elevation of 723 ft MSL (5 ft below plant grade).

In light of the concern about potentially high flood levels at Oconee Nuclear Station resulting from the failure of Jocassee Dam, it may be reasonable to understand the consequences of high flood events at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant resulting from failure of Watts Bar Dam and other upstream dams during an extreme precipitation event. Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is flood protected up to an elevation of 728ft and requires plant shutdown for flood elevations above this level. Given the close proximity of Watts Bar Dam to the plant site (Figure 11), very little warning time exists between the time of dam breach and the arrival of floodwaters at the site. The safety-related systems and components necessary for the maintenance of safe shutdown are protected up to the aforementioned design-basis flood level, which does not include a dam failure event (other than the West Saddle Dike at Watts Bar Dam).
Sequoyah Nuclear Plant near Chattanooga
In the event of the worst case - something like NRC describes above, where successive 75-year-old earthen dams built by the Corps of Engineers under emergency wartime conditions are overtopped or washed away -  there is no plan to protect these riverside nuclear reactors. The emergency plan for a dam failure at Watts Bar, based on the 25-year flood, assumes the waters will stop 5 feet below the reactor building's apron. It assumes it will not reach the diesel generators, the offsite power switchyard or the spent fuel pools. In other words, it assumes something like Fukushima cannot happen.

As the Duke study says, "When containment failure occurs, significant dose to the public would result." Chattanooga and Knoxville will be the most directly impacted, but unlike in Japan where most of the fallout blew out to sea, under normal Tennessee conditions the prevailing wind currents will carry Watts Bar and Sequoyah fallout up the western side of the Smoky Mountain National Park, across the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley, and then up the eastern seaboard of the United States, raining down transuranic elements on the people and water supplies of Roanoke, Harrisburg, Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, Newark, New York, Hartford, Boston and Portland, Maine.

This fate is not set in stone. TVA is prepared for sinkholes and discovered this one in time to excavate and plug it. What the sinkhole in Tennessee revealed, however, is an underlying pattern of deception and corruption. The US Congress has been spending money first to arm and train ISIS and then to arm and train its opposition but has delayed spending money on decaying infrastructure such as roads and bridges. For all we know ISIS is a false flag operation being run by ex-Navy Seals, in which case we would be arming and payrolling both sides. It would not be the first time.

After Fukushima the nation should have followed the lead of other countries and begun retiring nuclear plants, starting with the most vulnerable, and replacing them with cheaper, safer and more reliable renewable sources (carefully avoiding siting large hydro dams in karst terrain). Would that not be better Homeland Security than irradiating the entire population in airports? Instead, in the name of energy independence it relicensed old nuke plants, ignored the warnings of engineers that many are as vulnerable as Fukushima, and also increased the earthquake risks by promoting fracking in the Appalachian shale belt. Madness.

The internal NRC report says:

Like many sites in the U.S. inventory of nuclear power plants, flood levels at these two stations were based on relatively outdated flood estimation methods and/or probable precipitation estimates. The evolution of hydrological modeling — including dam break analysis — and the availability of updated meteorological data are likely to yield flooding estimates that are different than those considered during the initial licensing reviews or IPEEE studies.

What happens almost invariably is that the engineers who write words like these are relieved of their duties and shuffled off to less important work in some dimly lit boiler room office. The administrators to whom the findings are addressed stamp them as "Secret," and make sure they never see the light of day. Some clever whistleblower then posts them to the internet, where they are only read by those whose confirmation bias supports catastrophe by conspiracy.

Daniel Boone, for whom Boone Lake was named, said "I wouldn't give a tinker's damn for a man who isn't sometimes afraid. Fear's the spice that makes it interesting to go ahead.”

Perhaps if Chairman Inhofe can just put in a good word with God we will all be spared the scenarios depicted in these reports. Until then, a quiet fear of Boone will keep it interesting. 


View Video Post by The Farm Band from the Reactor album.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

What Rough Beast Is This?

"A globally-networked economy cannot shrink; deprived of fuel for further growth, it must break."

We are recently returned from the Mother Earth News Fair in Kansas where we spoke of the promise of permaculture and carbon farming to reverse global weirding. We are always happier after attending these events because they are so grounded in real skills and vocations and full of hope for the future.

Bryan Welsh, publisher of Mother Earth News, Utne Reader and Grit and author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want,  kicked off the event with an inspiring talk on the power of vision, and how to get it going in society.

Is it hopium? Are optimists only deluded? We don't think so.

Lately some of the most sane and foresighted preppers we know are beginning to question their own assumptions, if not their sanity. Oil production did peak in 2006, after all. All conventional liquid fuels, including biofuels, peaked shortly thereafter. This is 2014. We just filled up at the pump and paid less than $2.80 per gallon. Whatever happened to The End of Suburbia?

By sole dint of mass hypnosis, the United States had a good 3Q14 GDP, sending the stock market and the dollar to new heights. Gold closed Friday just below $1180/oz, ridiculing Goldbug warnings of sovereign default and hyperinflation. The two gold share indexes closed just above their 2008 lows and are poised to go lower Monday. Most analysts described this as a reaction to the QE program just launched by Japan. Outlier David Stockman (former Nixon OMB Director) described it this way:

In fact, this was just the beginning of a Ponzi scheme so vast that in a matter of seconds its ignited the Japanese stock averages by 5%. And here’s the reason: Japan Inc. is fixing to inject a massive bid into the stock market based on a monumental emission of central bank credit created out of thin air. So doing, it has generated the greatest front-running frenzy ever recorded. The scheme is so insane that the surge of markets around the world in response to the BOJ’s announcement is proof positive that the mother of all central bank bubbles now envelopes the entire globe.

The human mind, apparently unlike that of other primates, can hold two different explanations for experiential phenomenon at the same time. That does not always produce cognitive dissonance. We are unique among primates in having a frontopolar cortex that permits multitasking, including undertaking countersurvival activities such as simultaneously driving and texting.

This helpful anatomical asset allows us to hold contrary explanations for our experiences until at some point we find evidence to support one explanation over another. We do this by categorizing features like the redness of an apple, the sweetness of honey, or the sound of an owl but withholding the conclusion that what we are experiencing is an apple, honey or an owl. Instead, we hold the experience at the initial layer of our epistemic contact with reality, a layer we can then use as the basis for more sophisticated categorization into our beliefs and theories. That is where the mischief is done.

As Professor David Orr recently wrote for Solutions:

The plow, for instance, represented the ingenuity of John Deere, but also an emerging, yet seldom acknowledged agro-industrial paradigm of total human domination of nature with commodity markets, banks, federal crop insurance, grain elevators, long-distance transport, fossil fuel dependence, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, crop subsidies, overproduction, mass obesity, soil erosion, polluted groundwater, loss of biological diversity, dead zones, and the concentrated political power of the farm lobby representing oil companies, equipment manufacturers, chemical and seed companies, the Farm Bureau, commodity brokers, giant food companies, advertisers, and so forth. The upshot is a high output, ecologically destructive, fossil-fuel dependent, unsustainable and brittle food system that wreaks havoc on the health of land, waters, and people alike.

Many farmers are now forsaking the plow for these very reasons. Their beliefs about the not-immediately-apparent realities have changed. They are planting perennials and using no-till organic techniques that turn back the clock to the way societies functioned before agriculture. With that shift comes a return not merely to nutrient-dense and more delectable seasonal cuisine but to steady-state economies, redefined gender roles, and abandonment of faith in wage slavery, or student loan and health plan indenture systems.

The re-examination of agriculture is long overdue. It is, to borrow from Yeats, twenty centuries of stony sleep vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.

In 2006, when we published The Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, we assumed the post-peak decline slope would be steeper than it has been now, 8 years after the peak. What we are holding in our frontopolar cortex is not peak oil per se. That is already a fait d'accompli. What we are holding there are different explanations as to what has happened and what happens next.

 Of course, there are many things that we cannot know because they are hidden from our view. So, for instance, there is a popular narrative, put forth by the White House and captive media that Russia fomented popular unrest in Ukraine to enable it to seize Crimea and now to threaten Eastern Ukraine with annexation. We know that is a complete fabrication thanks to Wikileaks-exposed secret State Department cables, courageous reporters like Maria Finoshina on RT-TV, and observers on the ground whose accounts are self-validating. It makes us suspect everything the State Department blames on Vladimir Putin; fantasies such as training Edward Snowden as a spy, the downing of the Malaysian MH17 passenger jet, or the recent hacking of White House computers.

US claims jet was shot down by Russian-backed missile (top). Russia claims plane was shot down by US-backed fighter jet (bottom). Dutch investigators await radar evidence from both countries before deciding.

Low Gas Prices

The costs of oil extraction are rising at over 10 percent per year due to the depletion of conventional oilfields and replacement with much more expensive unconventional sources such as deepwater, Arctic, and fracked shale and gas formations. Since 2008, however, wholesale prices have dropped nearly 50% and retail prices even more, thanks to the generosity of oil refineries that have taken advantage of the global lows to push inventories to greater supplies than can be quickly sold, especially in a weak economy.

"Diminishing returns from oil limits are already beginning to hit, but the impacts and the expected shape of the down slope are quite different from those forecast by most Peak Oilers," writes Gail Tverberg.

If you were to ask why that is, Daniel Yergin and The Wall Street Journal, the Koch Party lobbyists on K-Street, or Stewart Brand's cabal of technocornucopians will sing a chorus that, as they have long predicted, increased returns from technology, whether it be horizontal drilling, mini-nukes or the latest new consumer gizmos that save energy, have more than substituted for declining recoverable resources. The logic flowing from this doctrine in every business school in every country is that peak anything is a myth. The best of these Ivory Tower economists lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
If you were to ask energy/ecology aware economists – Nicole Foss, Steve Keen, or Gail Tverberg for instance – why 2006 Peak Oil did not change business as usual (yet) they would tell you that by exponentially multiplying debt, using the 2008 financial crash as a pretext, it was possible to book imaginary profits that will be earned in the future in order to persuade gullible Main Streeters to work and spend – and to part with their life savings, homes and pensions. Massive and unrepayable debt is used to fund risky current expansions (such as for private space races, energy-intensive factories or foreign military bases) and current purchases (such as student loans and iPhones) that can float consumerist delusions ("Nothing to see here, move along") just long enough to make it through another year.

We are not advocating loitering Yergin and Foss in the same holding zone of our forebrain. Yergin is clearly wrong. Foss is clearly right. But the holding zone will be useful as we go along, so let's keep it in mind.

Instead of making more pie to be divided among ever more people needing ever more and better paying jobs, "extend and pretend" piles up more impossible-to-repay claims upon the finite underlying real assets, and most importantly, Earth's steadily declining energy resources. As David Korowicz assures us, a globally-networked economy cannot shrink; deprived of fuel for further growth, it must break.

"Let’s get real," says Richard Heinberg,

"The Earth is a bounded sphere, and the human economy is an engine that extracts raw materials and produces waste. If we keep that engine’s operation within the bounds of what our planet can absorb or replenish through its normal ecosystem functions, all is well. But if the economy continues to grow year after year, at some point the planet’s systems will be overwhelmed—even if we’re using renewable energy to extract and transform raw materials. Our uses of energy and materials can be made somewhat more efficient, but only up to a point. If the Earth itself were expanding at an ever-increasing rate, perpetual economic growth would pose no problem. Yet last time I checked, the planet hadn’t gotten any bigger — while our demands upon it continue to increase."

A reckoning is overdue. As Ellen Brown puts it,

"The too-big-to-fail banks have collectively grown 37% larger since 2008. Five banks now account for 42% of all US loans, and six banks control 67% of all banking assets."

These same few banks each have more than 40 trillion in derivatives on their books. Knock those down to market value and ripples of insolvency cascade through the entire system. This is why the prepper movement is growing, not shrinking.

One cause for Peak Oil self-doubt is that Hubbert linearization – that nice bell-shaped curve – that may correctly model growth and decline in individual oil wells and coal mines, or whole fields and provinces, and even, perhaps, estimated national reserves, does not correctly model the more complex global economy that is partly a product of market psychology involving both human aspirations and crass manipulation for nationalistic and profit purposes. A more thorough model might pull in neglected externalities such as price demand destruction, fertility rates and the corporate consolidation of media.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle suggests that the more certainty we can ascribe to one variable (the inevitability of oil depletion, for instance) the less we can hold for some other variable (timing, price, market regulation). That fits well with what we understand of neurobiology. Our simian brains multitask, but only to two things at once, and then only by microseconds. Increase the focus on one task and all others lose focus.

What happened in 2008 is that "Extend and Pretend" became the consensus government strategy, based on reliance in economic theories equating market logic with natural law. Psychology was seen as not only capable of gaining infinite extensions, but susceptible to manipulation by mass media. Keynesians assured governments that you can buy your way out of recession.

Sadly, the multi-trillion-dollar purchase begun in 2008 was only good for a short block of time, and has now grown too expensive to repeat. We might have used that purchased time to switch rapidly to solar energy, mass-transit and walkable cities, or to put greater attention into dismantling the most dangerous threats in a sudden collapse scenario (nuclear weapons and power, GM terminator crops, pandemic-response inadequacies) but our governments decided it was more important that bankers fatten up their offshore accounts and get a summer home in the Hamptons. Maintaining the illusion of normality was paramount.
Why $2.79 gas? One guess would be that offered by Tverberg, Heinberg and others to the effect that we are in a deflationary economy, pummelled by layoffs, business failures and other indica of recession and demand destruction has driven down the price. Another explanation might be to thank our loveable Saudi friends – you know, the ones who took the Cheney-Rumsfeld contract on 9-11? Now they are playing the long con against their Empire-addled Western partners. By driving down the price of Brent Crude, they can successfully undercut the razor thin capital margins of wildcat frackers, who are now pulling the ripcord on hundreds of giant projects. Gaslanders with high market cap or being supported by heavily sedated governments like Australia and Canada's will survive to try again. For now, it is an abattoir.

Two-dollar-and-change high octane is Big-New-Gas-Play speculator blood washing into the storm grate. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.

From the Deutsche Bank Commodities Quarterly:

“While we would expect an OPEC quota reduction to occur before any non-OPEC curtailments, it has been suggested that OPEC may refrain from immediate cutbacks in order to assess the price sensitivity of US tight oil production. In this unlikely event we would regard US production to be more price responsive than higher-priced (when measured on investment breakevens) Russian or Canadian supply because of shorter drilling contracts. Although the weighted average cost of US tight oil is US$ 72/bbl, close to 200 kb/d (or 9%) of 2015 expected production would not attract new investment below US$ 90/bbl, and a further 650 Kb/d would become unattractive between US$ 80-90/bbl.”

Follow the Absence of Money

Conventional wisdom holds that below $80 per barrel new fracking wells and similar unconventional plays – shales, tar sands, kerogens will not occur.  For the Saudis to keep their place as one of the top three providers of oil to the Empire and also their favored market position at Asian oil refineries, including China's, prices so low that your competition is squeezed out of business is very desirable. More importantly, that market share is something the exponentially expanding Saudi royal family desperately needs to support its acquisition of London townhouses, what with skyrocketing prices in the posher parts of town.

When there is a contest between fantasy and reality and fantasy wins, there is a tendency to see that as a rebuff. In actually, fantasy will often succeed in the short term.

Reality gets its way in the end. Looking back at the Mother Earth News Fair, we can ask again, Is it hopium? Are optimists only deluded? We don't think so.

Living now, this year, this month, with earth-based economies, where food comes from local no-till organic sources, water and air are unsullied, and the whole capitalist enterprise seems so quaint and distant, anyone can happily join the swelling ranks of anarchy. We don't need your old dystopian paradigm, thanks all the same. Everyone who wishes to can be happy living as we all should, for as long as we possibly can.

Except… this is not as true in the slums of earthquake ravaged Port-au-Prince or in ebola-plagued villages in Sierra Leone. The natural world has no borders. With knowledge comes obligation. Information and tools to shift paradigms need to travel faster than plagues. Prepping in isolation is shirking. A lot of trouble down the road can be spared by a little more willingness to offer a friendly hand up, now. This is the role of permaculture. It's the responsibility of greater awareness.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

W.B Yeats, The Second Coming

Friday, September 5, 2014

Stranded Ethics

Robert Jay Lifton, author of Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima, wrote an op-ed for The Sunday New York Times called The Climate Swerve, pointing out the sudden shift in awareness towards the existential threat we face from our careless destruction of the atmospheric commons.

In his earlier work on Hiroshima, Lifton observed that such a shift occurred some years after the bombing, when the full extent of its horrors became more widely known. Before then, it was, while unfortunate, morally okay under the rules of war to blow up or incinerate civilian populations, as the allies had been doing beginning with the firebombing of Dresden and then all over Japan. The Bomb's victims' shadows, etched in pavement, and the torments of the hibakusha  did what Picasso's Guernica and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five had failed to do. It transformed mass civilian incinerations into something that was morally reprehensible, auguring the Cold War.

Of course, just because it is now universally considered morally reprehensible does not stop rogue states from mass-slaughtering civilians with radioactive weapons in places like Falujah, Fukushima, Gaza or Doniesk but nonetheless the public is now outraged when it learns of these crimes, and it wasn't as much before. Governments are forced to go to lengths to keep these atrocities secret and to obscure the truth when it is hinted at. Lifton wrote:
"With both nuclear and climate threats, the swerve in awareness has had a crucial ethical component. People came to feel it was deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to engage in nuclear war, and we are coming to an awareness that it is deeply wrong, perhaps evil, to destroy our habitat and create a legacy of suffering for our children and grandchildren."

There is something more important in Lifton's essay than the "swerve" that the author is trying so hard to sell as a meme. Almost as a throwaway he uses a phrase that has a much deeper resonance. He calls the ways people regard moral crimes before the swerve "stranded ethics."

Stranded ethics: ethics that governed our collective decisions but have now lost their relevance.

Yes. We need to leave behind the stranded ethics of the 20th century the same way we need to leave in the ground the stranded capital assets of the fossil fuel companies and countries.

Our stranded ethics were based on growth at all costs — the prime directive of capitalism — and damn the environment, damn social justice and fair share, damn the future consequences. What counts, according to obsolete dicta from an industrial age, are share values, net worth, market share, competitiveness, national pride, ethnic pride, war footing and profits über alles.

In the stranded ethics of the past, it is more important to have routine unemployment to support all-volunteer armies than to pay a minimum wage adequate to support a family; it is more important to return value to shareholders than to protect the air and waters surrounding a manufacturing facility; and it is more important to give corporations civil rights than to regulate influence on the regulatory process, such as by making huge donations to sway an election.

Lifton says, "We may well speak of those shareholder-dominated principles as … better left buried but at present … all too active above ground." 
"It is a bit like the old Jack Benny joke, in which an armed robber offers a choice, 'Your money or your life!' And Benny responds, 'I'm thinking it over.'"

To truly inhabit the 21st century we will all share a common epiphany: that we have reached the Age of Limits and the Era of Consequences. We are at or soon approaching that inflection point. Here, now. From that shift it will follow as inexorably as night follows day that the ethics of the past are not just passé, but counterproductive. Anyone clinging to them will be regarded as a fool, a fossil and a social pariah.

So for instance, if you encounter someone who still thinks nuclear power is a good idea, they are still clinging to stranded ethics. If you encounter someone at a wedding telling the bride and groom it would be good to have more than two children, they have stranded ethics. You can be a little more compassionate towards them, especially if they are elderly, because you can appreciate what they are going through, having to change their whole approach to the world and still live with the horrible decisions they made earlier in their lives.

Someone who thinks it is okay to have that third kid, to donate money to a biotech wing at a university, to not compost their kitchen scraps, or to throw away lots of plastic like they didn't know where it is going — has stranded ethics. Eventually peer pressure will catch up with them.

Fishermen who use purse seine nets have stranded ethics. Japanese "whale researchers" have stranded ethics. Rhino horn cocktail consumers have stranded ethics. Very soon regulations and public opprobrium will catch up to them.

Homeowners who lease their back yards to frackers have stranded ethics. Poisoned wells and defaulted rent checks will catch up to them. People who work at car dealerships that only sell urban land cruisers have stranded ethics. The public will simply have stopped buying those behemoths.

Keeping 73 prisoners who have been exonerated of any crime imprisoned for years without trial or right of counsel after being found innocent by judicial review, for years, and then subjecting them to daily torture by shoving oversized and unsanitary plastic tubes down their noses when they protest, even on the day you admit, "We tortured some folks," thinking you were referring to a dozen years earlier and some other administration, not to the hundreds of people you tortured repeatedly that very same day for speaking up in protest, is stranded ethics.

Crimes such as these have well-established mechanisms of justice, that, while painfully slow, have no statute of limitations and apply as equally to Heads of State as to their minions. Toadies who coddle such war criminals as "the least worst alternative" have stranded ethics.

The late Zenmaster, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, in Zen Mind Beginners Mind said it is important to understand that Zen is nothing special. Any roshi will say the same. There is no attainment. Just sit. Nothing special.

As the ethics of the 20th century become stranded, the ethics of permaculture will become invisible. Permaculture will become the new normal. It will simply be taken for granted.

Permaculture is nothing special. Acting ethically towards future generations is nothing special. Living today as if there really is going to be a tomorrow is not a fringe activity. Just do it. Already, everyone else is starting to, too.

A version of these remarks was extemporaneously delivered at the opening plenary of the 2014 North American Permaculture Convergence on August 31, 2014. The full plenary can be viewed at


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Summer is Coming

" Studies such as these help us gaze into the uncertain future and ask if that is what we want for our children. Most of us don’t. A few of us actually try to do something to change it. For the rest, the lag time is comforting. The complexity of non-linear feedback systems gives us an excuse to procrastinate."

Why are zombies so ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture? The HBO mini-series, Game of Thrones, supplies one theory. Unlike in the AMC series, Walking Dead, or in the film, World War Z, the undead are not coming on like a Blitzkrieg hoard. Rather, the White Walkers are building slowly, as a rumor, sometimes killing the messenger and leaving the message undelivered. “Winter is coming” is an expression that hangs in the air, deepening the sense of foreboding.

One reviewer (for The New York Times) observed that “bringing in the White Walkers might be a way to ultimately point up the pettiness of politics — which is to say, no one cares who sits on what throne once zombies start eating people.” Thrones’ first four seasons of “people slicing, stabbing, axing, poisoning, eating, crushing and moon-dooring one another in every possible context,” underscore the point — that the pettiness of politics still rules the day. 

Game of Thrones resonates because outside the window is the drama of NATO expansion bumping up against retired Red Army vets in the Ukraine, the unmasking of shadow banks in the U.K. by the Financial Times and shadowing governments by Edward Snowden, or the sniper battle on the U.S. Republican right that is so entertaining to MSNBC and CNN. It is all much ado about nothing. Just North of our popular culture Wall is a climate juggernaut, building momentum.

Last month John P. Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, released the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA3). If you missed the news, it was because the report was all about the White Walkers no one wants to talk about.

By the end of this century, a 2.75°C to 5.5°C global temperature rise is projected, based on continued higher emissions — fracking, coal, deep ocean and other sources being exploited to the maximum (referred to as the “A2 scenario”) — and a roughly 1.7°F to 2.8°C rise under a cutback scenario (“B1”) — best understood as a Peak Oil/Financial Collapse scenario, because governments would never agree to such drastic measures — 80% in a decade or so —  if further stalling were an option. The NCA3 projections are based on results from 16 supercomputer climate models in a comparison study.

Both scenarios — business as usual and drastic curtailment — produce a temperature and climate regime that would likely be lethal for modern civilization, if not the human race. In the Cancun round of the Committee of Parties in 2010, United Nations high level negotiators produced a general agreement — over the opposition of the USA, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Israel and other obstructionists — that "recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet,” 2°C was the “line in the sand” beyond which global temperatures should not be allowed to climb. In the latest three rounds— Durban, Doha and Warsaw — there has been a strong push from the science and civil sectors to reduce the target to 1.5°C to avert potentially unmanageable risks of tipping points from which no recovery would be possible. Since Warsaw last December some of these points — the inexorable slippage of ice in Antarctica and the release of methane from permafrost to name two — have tipped. 

The NCA3 study is saying, essentially, we are in dangerous territory whether we stop emissions tomorrow or not. Summer temperatures in the U.S. have been rising on average 0.4 degrees F per decade since 1970, or about 0.2 C. Average summertime temperature increase has been 1°C overall, but the Southwest and West regions have borne the brunt of those increases, and temperatures have risen an average of 0.4°C, with a few localized areas warming as much as 0.6°C per decade. This is 5 times faster than the Earth as a whole warmed in the 20th century. North America, which lags other parts of the planet, is now in an exponential curve of accelerating change.

After release of the study, John Holdren told Yale 360:  
“There are a number of findings in this report that sound an alarm bell signaling the need for action to combat the threats from climate change. For instance, the amount of rain coming down in heavy downpours and deluges across the U.S. is increasing; there’s an increase that’s already occurring in heat waves across the middle of the U.S.; and there are serious observed impacts of sea-level rise occurring in low-lying cities such as Miami, where, during high tides, certain parts of the city flood and seawater seeps up through storm drains. These are phenomena that are already having direct adverse impacts on human well-being in different parts of this country.”

Studies such as these help us gaze into the uncertain future and ask if it is really what we want for our children. Most of us don’t. A few of us actually try to do something to change it. For the rest, the lag time is comforting. The complexity of non-linear feedback systems gives us an excuse to procrastinate.

Nelson Lebo, writing for Wanganui (NZ) Chronicle, says:
On a very large scale, most climate scientists say that much of the excess heat energy that the Earth is currently absorbing is going into the world’s oceans. They refer to oceans as “heat sinks.” The major concern with this situation is that the ‘sinks’ will become ‘sources’ in the future. In other words, the chickens (massive amounts of heat energy) will come home to roost (wreak havoc on us with extreme weather events).
While this energy is being stored in the oceans everything appears to us to be OK. It is a lot like running up a large debt. … This is the same strategy that U.S. President Bush (the second) used with the Iraq War. He did not tax Americans to pay for the war, but put it on the national credit card. There were few complaints at the time, but now after a trillion dollars we hear complaints about the “unsustainable levels of federal debt” in America.
Similarly, climate scientists continue to warn of “unsustainable levels of carbon debt,” but I suspect more and more people will echo them in the future, especially because another and perhaps more ominous delay is also built into the climate system.
Once fossil fuels are burned the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for decades causing more and more warming. Many scientists say that even if we stopped burning all coal, oil and gas today that we would continue to experience the effects for the better part of most Wanganui Chronicle readers’ lifetimes.
Earlier this week investment guru CharlesHugh Smith told his readers: 
In my opinion, markets reflect a dynamic somewhat akin to the Heisenburg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, which holds that precision is fundamentally limited by Nature: the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. In an analogous fashion, the more precisely we can determine the likelihood of a trend change, the less precisely we can determine the timing of the trend change–and vice versa. 
Which takes us back to what we posted previously with respect to Dennis Meadow’s chart of non-linear responses. Like a coastal landscape shaped by extreme storm events, the Anthropocene arrives in leaps and droughts. We can tell the direction of the trend.  The timing is anyone’s guess.

And the White Walkers are just beyond the wall.




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