Restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider

from Paul Hawken’s commencement speech at the University of Portland: “…This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way… What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past…” Read  

A sick culture of debt

To our new president, please do not print more money, more debt. We are well beyond historically high public debt ratios.  This kind of massive indebtedness will likely ripple through our world for decades. The next generation is going to inherit a nightmarish, bankrupt world of our making. That generation, my son’s generation, will become little more than the clean-up crew for our indulgent parties. Injecting debt into a sick culture of debt is like giving smack to a junkie. Huge infusions of new debt will only prolong the enivitable bottom, slow the recovery cycle, and artifically skew the natural work-reward cycles.   Mr. Obama, let the economy hit bottom on its own. It will be messy, people will suffer. But recovery will probably come far sooner – and stronger. Our time in history is beggining to look an awful lot like the 1930s, where our government tried to spend its way back to prosperity. Eventual prosperity did not come by government programs (they failed), but ironically by the arrival of WW2. Consider that.. Mr. Obama, if you must create new debt, invest it in alternative energy. And be creative. Any idiot president with a pen and a willing congress can print money (Bush and friends did it for years). I seem to remember something about “change” coming to Washington.    From today’s AP newswire.. The collapse in bank stocks today was swift: State Street Corp. plunged 59 percent, Citigroup fell 20 percent and Bank of America lost 29 percent. Royal Bank of Scotland fell 69 percent in New York trading. “The reason we’re having a panic drop is the fact that Europe is catching our cold, and we could have deeper and deeper problems that could require more and more money. And eventually the government is going to have to stop spending,” said Keith Springer, president of Capital Financial Advisory Services. “It’s a pretty dangerous situation to be  

Ideology & Free Inquiry

Obama just announced his selections for the White House Office of Science and Technology and NOAA. His picks are good, solid choices. But what impresses me the most is Obama’s perspective on science itself, which is a near-180 shift in perspective from the current administration.  Says Obama, he has selected “leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respect the integrity of the scientific process. Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology.”  Of course, political ideology, left and right, can and does obscure scientific enquiry. Let’s encourage Obama to allow science to speak for itself, relatively free of partisan  

Sustaining the Unsustainable

From James Kunstler’s blog…     Much of the real work of the next president will be guiding a transition out of obsolete habits, practices, and expectations that we must shed whether we like it or not. The painful downscaling of the financial services sector, from a bloated 20+ percent of the US economy back to something more in the 5 percent range, is only the first of these agonies. The transition away from suburbia — our tragic misallocation of resources in an infrastructure for daily life with no future — will be even more harrowing because of the psychology of previous investment, which will provoke a misguided effort to sustain the unsustainable, and squander our dwindling resources in the process. I reject the label “gloom-and-doomer” where these difficult transitions are concerned. There’s a lot about the way we live now that is disgusting, degrading, demoralizing, and socially toxic — from our suicidal diet of processed fat, salt, and corn syrup byproducts to the spiritually punishing everyday realm of the highway strip to the fantastic loneliness and alienation of a people made hostage to a TV-consumer nexus of corporate colonialism. We’re done with that. We just don’t know it  


Wade Davis is spending time with the Aboriginees in the Northern Territories. These are and were a people with no notion of linear time. Theirs was one of the great experiments in human thought. The notion that the world existed as a perfect whole, and that the singular duty of humanity was to maintain through ritual activity the land precisely as it existed when the Rainbow Serpent embarked on the journey of creation. The logos of the Dreaming was constancy, balance, symmetry. In the moment there is deductive logic, on a hunt for example, when the men pay attention to signs with a perspicacity that would put Sherlock Holmes to shame. But in life there is only the Dreaming, in which every thought, every plant and animal, are inextricably linked as a single impulse, the inspiration of the first dawning. Had humanity followed this track, it is true that we would have never placed a man on the moon. But we would most certainly not be speaking of our capacity to compromise the life support of the planet. I have never in all of my travels been so moved by a vision of another possibility, born literally 55,000 years ago. This world is so amazing. The realm of the modern is just the floss. The ancient rhythms resonate in ways we can only imagine….   (From TED blog – hi Emily!) And this, from Paul Hawken, on the movement nobody saw coming.  It flies under the radar of the media by-and-large, it is non-violent, it is grassroots, it is greater and deeper and broader than we ourselves can know. Its ideology is not centralized. A male vertebrate is not in charge. This unnamed movement is the most diverse movement the world has ever seen. The very word movement is too small to describe it. No one started it. No one is in charge of it. It is global, classless, unquenchable, and tireless. This shared understanding is arising spontaneously from different economic sectors, cultures, regions, and cohorts. It is growing and spreading globally, with no exceptions. It is marked by kinship, community, and symbiosis. Hawken is talking about a shared awareness for our planet’s health and sustainability, but I see it as much more. As instantaneous / virtual global communication spreads, there is no human endeavor that will not be touched by this growing, organically interconnected community. Politics, borders, institutions — all of the inherited boundaries we thought kept us “safe” from others — are being made irrelevant by this emerging global ecclesia. Enjoy Hawken’s five minute talk from the 2006 Bioneers conference. (HT Michel  

The Illusion of Wealth

Wise words from my friend John Greer, who I hung with earlier this week at the ASPO Conference in Sacramento. . . . Right now America is as addicted to empire as any inner-city crackhead to cocaine. We support the world’s most bloated military, with troops and bases in more than a hundred countries, in order to enforce a global economic order that allows the 5% of the world’s people who live in the United States to use roughly a third of the world’s resources. At the same time, empires are costly pets, and ours – like every other empire in history – is becoming an economic burden our nation can no longer support; at the same time, the drastic decrease in US living standards that would follow the end of American empire is a political time bomb nobody wants to touch. Caught in that dilemma, the United States seems determined to follow the usual course of past empires, allowing its imperial commitments to drag it down. A depression, however, would force the issue. In the midst of economic collapse, the United States would be no more able to maintain a global military presence than Russia was after its own collapse. The troops would have to come home – not just from Iraq and Afghanistan, but from the whole far-flung web of US military bases – and resources now being drained by the incubus of empire would be available for more constructive tasks, such as preparing for the onset of peak oil… The most important impact depression could have is also the one that most people will enjoy the least: most of us will have to learn to make do with fewer of the comforts, conveniences, and opportunities that we have all learned to expect. For the last sixty years most Americans have enjoyed lives of relative opulence, even as the resource base and manufacturing economy that made that opulence possible has trickled away. The last few decades have seen desperate attempts to replace these losses with exotic financial instruments and an increasingly strident imperial policy overseas. These measures worked for a while, but now the bill is coming due. . . . I don’t always agree with my Druid friend, but this time I think he is spot on. Money is simply a place-holder for energy. Free-market goods and legitimate services are created with human energy. Money was meant to reflect prior work.  But this generation has become expert at creating money without corresponding goods, and with virtually no service value beyond service to money itself. Arbitrage, derivatives, vigorish, multiple repackagings of debt, wildly excessive leverging — in consort with a government more beholden to Wall Street interests than its common citizens; a government that has been willingly printing trillions of dollars (debt) to support these vacant, unsustainable financial practices. Fully 15% of U.S. GDP is now generated by “financial services.”  Since they began keeping records, U.S. real wealth (non-leveraged value) greatly exceeded its “derivative wealth.” But that recently changed. In the year 2000, we went upside down: our “derivative wealth” became larger than our real wealth. In other words, comnmercial bankers successfully created the illusion of wealth. The U.S. government bought into the game and printed massive sums of money to support Wall Street’s con game. In return, we now have a national debt that’s roughly equal with our national GDP, and our liabilities to foreigners (China, etc.) are far greater than our national debt.  We’re in the mess we’re in today primarily because, over the last eight years, “derivative wealth” has skyrocketed. It is today THREE TIMES greater than real wealth, supported by little more than a ponzi system revealed this week to be financially and morally bankrupt. It’s the reason housing became artifically inflated, encouraged by corporate greed and a government complicit in the con.   

A Fragile & Unfathomable Creation

There are times in the history of our nation when our very way of life depends upon dispelling illusions and awakening to the challenge of a present danger. In such moments, we are called upon to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes. Those who, for whatever reason, refuse to do their part must either be persuaded to join the effort or asked to step aside. This is such a moment. The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk. And even more — if more should be required — the future of human civilization is at stake. I don’t remember a time in our country when so many things seemed to be going so wrong simultaneously. Our economy is in terrible shape and getting worse, gasoline prices are increasing dramatically, and so are electricity rates. Jobs are being outsourced. Home mortgages are in trouble. Banks, automobile companies and other institutions we depend upon are under growing pressure. Distinguished senior business leaders are telling us that this is just the beginning unless we find the courage to make some major changes quickly. …Yet when we look at all three of these seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them, deeply ironic in its simplicity: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges — the economic, environmental and national security crises. We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change. …The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels. – Al Gore, July 2008 While I somewhat prefer the perspective of Bjorn Lomborg to Al Gore on climate change issues (both are TED’sters), I unreservedly agree with Gore’s call for swift and relentless investment in sustainable forms of energy. Wholesale reliance on petro-energy has created a temporary, unsustainable acceleration of population and overheated prosperity, leading to the illusory notion that our fossil-fueled lifestyle is permanent. A recent Scientific American study estimates that an investment of $480 billion will be required to sustainably generate 2/3 of our electricity by 2050. But if we have truly reached the “bumpy plateau” of global oil production, we simply don’t have forty years to make a relatively painless transition. We have maybe five to ten years at best. All systems self-correct, and though we’ve tried very hard to bend nature into our will, nature will always reclaim its immutable rhythms. We are, after all, not separate from nature, but simply a tiny part in its grand holism. Yet we live as though we are somehow aloof from nature’s inescapable laws. For too long, we have defined ourselves as consumers of goods and services, rather than enlightened stewards of a fragile and unfathomable creation. Every day, more people are “getting it” – realizing how terribly out-of-balance we have become from the earth’s natural rhythms. SF Chronicle writer Erica Etelson shares her own epiphany in yesterday’s issue. I encourage you to read it. Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook summarizes what many of us have been saying for years about energy issues, “It’s such an incredible challenge, yet it’s so under the radar screen. How could the government not be screaming from the  

Energy and Population

I’ve written before on the direct link between energy and population growth. Many of us think this is today’s most important structural issue: energy-population. I’ve hyphenated these words to stress that energy and population are interchangeable on a macro scale. The world would not have 6.5 billion people today without access to highly concentrated energy (e.g, fossil fuels). Of course, it took human ingenuity to harness the energy which created today’s “carrying capacity.” Humanity exploded in parallel with an understanding of energy application. It’s a chicken-and-egg spiral, yet energy remains the raw capital of social efficiency as well as the world’s largest business (by a huge margin). Earthbound energy is stored sunlight. The idea of energy = population is really self-evident if you take the extreme case. Prevent access to caloric energy: mammals parish. Restrict caloric energy: some survive while others die off. Measured in calories, today’s industrialized citizen uses roughly 230,000 kcals per day, and over 90% of that energy is consumed as fossil fuels. Compare this with pre-industrial societies (earlier than 1800) who used roughly 1/20th the energy we use today – and virtually all of that was biomass (wood, dung, etc.). Compare the relationship of GDP to energy. During the last 100 years, petroleum energy has accounted for fully two-thirds of the USA’s GDP, with stronger weighting during the last half of the century. An  exhaustive study was presented at the 2005 ASPO Conference by Robert Ayres (Professor Emeritus, Physics, INSEAD). Granted, we’re getting more efficient with our energy, which is why since 1980, GDP is increasing faster than historic energy comparisons, but we need to see this curve accelerate much faster to make a difference. Energy and GDP are still unbreakably linked. Populations have always grown… but very slowly until we learned how to harness high quality fuels. The Industrial Revolution (1700-1900) championed coal (steam engines, etc.) which fueled a dramatic rise in social efficiencies, leading to a rate of population growth seven times greater than the 1500-1700 era. Cheap, concentrated fossil fuels again doubled the rate of population growth (1900-1960), and then doubled again during the (1960-2000) Green Revolution. We could not have added and sustained an additional 3 billion souls (in just 40 years) without petro-chemical enriched soils, energy-intensive pesticides, and other energy-focused farming methods of the Green Revolution. Someone once calculated that fossil fuels have provided industrialized citizens with the equivalent of 30 unpaid servants. Maybe so. In 1900, roughly 80% of the U.S. population derived income from some manner of agriculture. Today, it’s less than 2%. Here’s a table I’ve created showing annual population growth during the last 2000 years. 0-1000AD: nil 1000-1500: 0.10% / yr 1500-1700: 0.12% 1700-1900: 0.83% 1900-1960: 1.56% 1960-2000: 2.58% (Green Revolution) In absolute numbers, global population looks like this. 0 AD 300 million 1000 310 million 1500 500 million 1700 600 million 1900 1.6 billion 1960 3.1 billion 2000 6.2 billion (source U.S. Census: More people have been added to the Earth during the past 50 years than have been added since the dawn of man. Some call the beginning of time through 1800 the “biomass fueled population” – just as coal reached a 20% share of energy resources. The “coal population” spans 1800-1940 or so, when oil reached at 20% share of energy resources. Post 1940 might be called the “oil population.” Nobel laureate, physicist, nano-pioneer Richard Smalley (d.2005) was considered by many as the world’s foremost authority on macro energy. He spent that last 20 years of his life researching world energy, population, social trend, etc.. He tirelessly lobbied world governments, industry, and classical economists to radically change the way we look at our energy future. He understood the dynamics of energy-population and warned that, without deliberate structural intervention, we would be facing an energy-economic shortfall unparalleled in human history. Classical economics defines energy as an “external event.” Economists see energy as a “constant” in their supply/demand equations – they assume that cheap, abundant energy will always be available. Energy researchers (physicists, geologists, engineers..) know this is wrong. Where there is a will, there is not always a way. Unfortunately, many people still think in terms of pure economics and dismiss the idea of energy scarcity. Certainly, rising energy costs will drive conservation, along with development of alternative energies. This will help to moderate the energy issues which confront us and future generations. But is it enough? Can emerging alternatives sustain industrial / economic growth as we know it? A growing body of research says no – that in the very near future our lives will be changed significantly by the reduced availability / affordability of fossil energy (explored in-depth on this blog). We’re entering an age where energy is no longer a fixed “external event,” but rather a dynamic variable in supply/demand equations – an anchor against the notion of unlimited growth. Short of discovering some new, highly concentrated, almost-free energy source (like oil and natural gas in the last century), economic performance will become inexorably tied to the increasingly higher costs of energy. Historically, demographers, drawing heavily from classical economic theory, have largely ignored the impact of energy on population growth. Yet many are now showing that energy is the underlying reason for much of this growth. Economic theories of growth have gotten a free-ride while energy has been cheap and plentiful. Now that we’re entering into an era of energy scarcity, classic energy economics is seen to be based on wrong assumptions. The study of world energy is massively complex. I don’t pretend to know what the future holds. We’re all making our best guesses based on the data we feel is most relevant. And, as always, I think it’s best to err on the side of caution. Some related resources on: energy vs. population, sustainability, carrying capacity. Jay Hanson on Friedman Economics & Energy Western Oregon University Summary on Historical Energy Consumption Drivers of Growth, INSEAD (excellent systems-level study) Paul Chefurka’s World Energy and Population Trends Energy Transitions – A Look at Both Sides (this post is a continuation of a conversation at Peter Rollins’