If you’re in the storm…

Just putting a few things out there for people who are in the path of the Big OMGSCARY Winter StormTM, from my own experience having lived outdoors through a few hardcore winters. First, charge all your devices now. Second, if you have a wood stove or fireplace, bring some wood inside the house, and chop a bit of it up into kindling. Wood that has been split small and kept warm is much easier to light than cold wood, especially cold wood with snow on it. Third, put some water in metal pots on the counter- in a pinch, if the water freezes to ice, a metal pot can be put directly on a heat source, even a flame (bonus if no plastic or wooden handles!) Fourth, if there’s anything you might need in an attic or a basement storage space (or an outbuilding) go get it now while you don’t need a flashlight. This is mostly about extra blankets, boots, batteries if you like listening to the radio, and those books you’ve been meaning to read (I fully expect the number of people in the affected area to have finished Thomas Piketty to double in the next few days). If you have municipal water, you will want to turn on the faucets a small amount so the pipes won’t freeze, but you can wait to do this until after the heat goes out, if in fact that happens.

(Your furnace and your oven, even if they’re gas or woodburners, probably use electricity to regulate the thermostat or feed fuel and won’t work if the power goes out. Your hot water heater definitely won’t work. Municipal water pressure probably has backup power but if you have a well-pump with a diaphragm tank your water pressure will only work for a little while, so don’t waste it!)

Now, that being done, go outside and make snow angels. Make a snowman. Challenge your neighbors to a snowball fight. Bake cookies (assuming of course that the oven still works) or hard-sugar candy (mix equal parts sugar and water, boil for a while, then drizzle over snow- bonus if you add flavorings). Bring some to the old lady upstairs, or down the street (and make sure she’s got enough blankets too).

And finally, something that went out to friends in an email last summer but never got moved to the blog. Based on my experience in fire training, and probably completely irrelevant to the Big OMGSCARY Winter StormTM, but worth putting on the record:

When the government says evacuate before disaster strikes, go- they are not kidding around. The cost of shutting down even a small suburb, let alone defending against lawsuits over the decision to do so, is insanely high, well beyond the budget of any municipality. The guy who makes the decision has already endured days of lawyers and bean counters arguing that shelter-in-place or watchful-waiting are acceptable and far less costly alternatives, and the military has probably weighed in saying that an evacuation order would cause “panic.” If they say evacuate anyway, its not a joke. The first rule of any disaster, from a hurricane to a famine, is that the first one to leave is the last one alive.

Stay warm and have fun.

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With apples so cheap…

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
-Yip Yarbug, 1930

Song describing the ready availability of unsecured zero-interest loans during America’s last middle class economic boom

Gail Tverberg has put forth her attempt at explaining why low oil prices aren’t actually a good thing. This is a weirdly difficult argument right now, because so many people, from the New York Times to CBS News to Janet Yellen to the Glob have made the argument over the past year that unless you’re in the fracking industry, low oil prices mean, and this is almost a cliche by now, “more money in your pocket.” Why is oil so low? Well, maybe there are Chinese issues but to read these sources, we American consumers are the accidental beneficiaries of a price war between Saudi Arabia, the US, Russia and oh who knows, maybe Iran, who are taking big financial hits driving down the price of oil to bankrupt each other.

That makes no damn sense. If you look at the markets, commodities overall are tanking. Wheat, corn, soy, gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, lumber, sugar, and iron ore are all way down over the past year. Are we to believe that Americans are also the accidental beneficiaries of a price war between Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, the EU, Guyana, India, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and the US, who are also taking big financial hits driving down the price of everything to bankrupt each other? And they just now decided to start doing this?

The thing is, lower prices can be caused by trade wars, but they can also be a symptom of weakening demand and a stronger dollar, which in a global currency-market world can mean that other countries are seeking a haven currency because their domestic economies aren’t doing so well. There hasn’t been good news from the Chinese manufacturing sector in a while, and stock markets- which aren’t the economy, but kind of reflect parts of it- are struggling globally. Describing this as “more money in your pocket” is the worst kind of spin. In light of this, I hereby present a (sarcastic) photo essay on how low prices can benefit American consumers, as evidenced by this one time way back when…

With apples so cheap, working families had a lot more extra cash at the end of the day to spend on other things


Low cost “tiny houses” made urban living affordable for a new generation of ambitious young people.


A “maker movement” allowed anyone to work from home…


…and new disruptive transportation technology brought these artisanal goods to the world market.


A rapidly-changing job market enabled many people to choose self-employment on the “gig” economy.


Economic migrants were a political issue…


…but only crazy liberals linked them to environmental disasters and drought…


…because obviously it was much more about overpopulation. These people, they just had too many children.


New financial instruments, like the “tommy gun,” allowed the general public greater access to capital that had previous been locked into illiquid assets, like other people’s payrolls.


Many families made the move “off the grid.”


And even an unemployed guy like Charles Darrow could get fabulously wealthy with one great idea that had been thought up by someone else.


What on earth did anyone have to complain about? Clearly this was a time of unprecedented economic opportunity for all. Shut up. Just shut up, poors. Time for you to suck it up. I’m serious.

Entrpreneurship Means I Give Up

I come from down in the valley/
where mister when you’re young/
they teach you to grow up to do/
like your daddy done
-Bruce Springsteen, The River


In his state of the union speech, President Obama predictably praised America’s “spirit of discovery and innvoation” and talked about making it easier for entrepreneurs to start new businesses in a single day. This is bad news, and let me explain why.

There are basically two significant visions of the climate crisis (I’m deliberately excluding those who believe there is no climate crisis, and also those like Guy McPherson who believe the looming crisis is so extreme that nothing will serve to enable a single human to survive another century) and those are first, the only plausible response is cease the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, and to absorb the social disruption and change in standard of living that this would entail, and second, that some new technology will come along that enables renewable sources to provide the energy that drives our modern quality of life. There is actually surprisingly little in the median strip between these two solutions: at a conference last year Hans Bruyninckx mentioned, offhandedly, that the European Environment Agency is basing its policy and planning recommendations on exactly the 4o world that the World Bank says “must be avoided.”

Both of these “plans” have their problems- for the first, stopping the trade in fossil fuels would essentially destroy USD10 trillion in private wealth, specifically the assets of some of the most politically powerful private entities in the world. Furthermore, the disruption in lifestyle suffered primarily by the wealthiest and most militarily powerful countries as a result would be profoundly destabilizing. Unsurprisingly, major Western powers have traditionally opted for the second response, calling for “innovation” as a solution.

Only problem is, innovation is a “scalable” enterprise. You can dream about a worm or a spear-carrying soldier and invent space suits or sewing machines, or you can pour trillions of dollars into research programs and come up dry- there’s no automatic connection between inputs and outputs. Engineers call these as-yet-unrealized solutions to difficult problems “unobtainium” but lay observers have taken to another phrase: “hopium”

Its safe to say that at present, the idea that climate change can be averted or even accomodated without a major shift in the american way of life depends on hopium, but that’s a science and engineering question, and this isn’t an engineering essay.

Entrepreneurship is Hopium for the Economy

I had a nasty realization the other day- at my first “real” taxable job, working retail at a bookstore, I was making USD0.65 more than minimum wage. Since then I’ve gotten a college degree, come within striking distance of finishing grad school, and acquired a number of practical and social skills I simply didn’t have as a teenager. And I’m making… USD0.65 more than minimum wage. Sure, the minimum’s gone up, but in inflation-adjusted dollars I’m earning less than 2% more in middle age than I was as a teen. That’s not even unusual. Wages vs. inflation is a hotly debated topic, but unless you buy the Heritage Foundation’s argument that DVD players make you wealthy, incomes have stagnated while the cost of living has gone up.

I’ve never understood the argument that technological toys compensate for a declining standard of living in real terms. Like hey, my dad is dying in his fifties of kidney disease from heavy metals in the municipal tapwater, but at least he got to play Candy Crush- what?

I won’t revisit the collapse of the manufacturing economy in North America except to point out that the Springsteen lyric I used as an epigraph was, for a while, true. Now it isn’t- how many readers could actually go into the same business as our parents and expect a similar career? How many non-scalable careers are even out there? People read Taleb’s question of scalability as advice on how to get rich- choose a career where you have a chance to be mindblowingly successful, as opposed to one where your income is capped by the numbers of hours in the week- but I read it backwards as a statement on your chances of finding work that might pay anything at all. There aren’t steel mills and shipping companies ready to absorb thousands of eager workers with strong backs, who show up on time, put in a day’s labor, and expect to own a house by the time they’re thirty. Even the modern replacement careers- nursing schools, medical schools, which, contrary to the American legend, are calibrated to turn out very few brilliant practitioners in favor of a large, reliable number of perfectly adequate practitioners and a vanishingly small number of screwups- are becoming more lottery-like. Specifically, the ratio of medical school “slots” to the number of residencies waiting for those students once they graduate is going way up… but I digress. The point is, doing like your daddy done just isn’t an option anymore.

Lotteries Overt and Otherwise

So, what’s a smart person to do to avoid pauperism? Well that’s obvious, isn’t it? Create your own job! Start a new business in a day! Making… well… this is the part where it gets tricky. If it were apparent what businesses need started already, they’d be started already. The first “job” today’s kids have to answer is, what the hell am I going to do that anyone is willing to pay me for? And each kid, increasingly, is expected to answer this alone as an individual. When poor or less-educated people do this, its called “hustling” but when it trickles upwards to the children of the 1%, its our national economic plan. Play the small-business lottery, cross your fingers, and hope.

I should also acknowledge that so far, this hasn’t caused any major collapse. There’s a lot of elasticity built into the system: one of the odd aspects of the global economic slowdown is that there are virtual oceans of liquid capital looking for a safe harbor for investment. Only a very few “startups” have to generate 10000% ROI to justify funding an enormous number of bright young sparks, especially when the bond rate is zero or close to it. This serves as a weird, semi-Keynesian stimulus for the tech sector as secondary producers that make tools for startups are able to extract a living from these mayfly customers. Labor costs are subsidized by the savings of the previous generation, who pay the living expenses of young “interns” who work for free. Ultimately the game is based on the assumption that somebody, somewhere will come up with something that is more important than Google Glass, actually necessary and marketable in the long term, but there’s a long, long short term during which the traditional rules of Keynesian stimuli apply- for those on the inside anyway.

Its also worth noting that while true Keynesianism, defined as state investment in wage labor to decrease humanitarian problems and increase spending by the lower quartiles, has been attacked as a “moral hazard” (even a moral panic) since it was first invented, the actual moral costs of a quasi-Keynesian venture-capital “boom” going to the 1% are actually far worse than any “undeserving” person driving a nice car every could be.

So what?

There are two major problems with this. The first is that investment in tech “innovation” promotes inequality. Don’t believe me? Try moving to San Francisco, Boston, NYC, or any other “innovation hub.” The second problem is the hopium problem- there’s no reason to believe that any of this will actually play out for the better of the rest of the world, or even the country. Sure, there’s a possibility that Tesla batteries will become a major industry employing millions of average people who didn’t go to Stanford or the Wharton school, but there’s also a possibility that some clever person will discover “zero point energy” and solve the climate crisis without incurring any human lifestyle cost at all. Both represent gambles with very long odds, and both have substantial short-term and possibly long-term downsides. A rational economic policy would accept that some sort of keynesian stimulus for the 99%- okay, the 90%- or better yet a system that decoupled standard of living from economic “growth,” just as a rational climate policy would begin the process of dialing down resource consumption in preparation for a world in which cheap, plentiful energy is simple not available. Instead, we’re promised unbelievable “successes” right around the corner.

The track record so far has been terrible for both “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” and the fact that they remain our official policy can only really be seen as evidence that the powers that be- the economic planners and engineers who determine the priorities of the most powerful corporate and state actors in history, have basically given up.

Trying Again

I am still struggling to address this topic of knowability and technology, and much of this struggle is in fact internal- I’m not sure I have a handle on it myself. I will keep posting here until I feel that either I have explained what I’m thinking in clear enough language to distribute, or else that I have chewed it into unrecognizable shreds which no longer hold any interest. Suffice it to say I am probably out of my depth here, but I think this is something that isn’t being said widely elsewhere, so I’m going to keep giving it a shot.

This discussion began with Ran’s call for specific timed and falsifiable predictions of technological collapse, of the Kunstler-Greer model. Greer actually does make predictions that are somewhat falsifiable (Kunstler does too, though his tend to be hand-wavy and he’s a bit of a jackass) but they tend to be short-term and not directly connected to anything other than bad things happening. For instance, two of his core predictions for the coming year are that the current regime in Saudi Arabia will fall and Trump will be elected president. These are short-term, falsifiable, and I hope I’m not tipping my ideological hand by saying that either would lead to a pretty bad state of affairs, but the connection to the eponymous “technological collapse” is unclear. Larger, better armed countries than KSA have fallen into leadership crises in the past, and a Trump presidency would probably resolve itself in four or eight years with only a massive blot on world history- even a Cultural-Revolution-scale disruption of American social and economic continuity would be unlikely to actually end everything.1

My objection is primarily with the term “prediction.” Looking back at historical collapses, such as they were, it is difficult to see anyone “predicting” anything. In fact, nobody then, and often nobody now even understands the problem at its core, and all contemporary and most historical accounts tend heavily towards moral narratives indicative of the anxieties of the times, rather than factual descriptions of events.

For instance, its easy to mock medieval Europeans who saw the black death as evidence of god’s wrath, especially if you look into exactly what they thought god might be mad about. At best they’re the antecessors of modern doofuses who explain every hurricane or every terrorist attack as evidence that god is punishing America (or France, or whoever) for gay people, abortion, going off the gold standard, or what-have-you. At the time, though, medieval Europeans would have had no concept of bacterial disease, or of how it could be spread by fleas, or maintained in reservoirs of rats (or gerbils!), or how half a world away, the Yuan-dynasty Mongol endorsement of passports and long-distance credit had enabled trade routes that carried these vectors. Even this represents hubris on my part- the gerbil paper is actually about changes in rodent ecology following changes in climate, and it is definitely true that the bubonic plague was preceded by several decades of livestock and agricultural diseases, regional famines, mass movements of (European) people, and the medieval-warm-period-related settlement of previously uncultivated parts of Eurasia. There are almost certainly major contributing factors that haven’t yet been identified as such, and I’m only slightly less a fool than the flagellants for trying to explain what happened here.

That we are still studying the causes of the black death, seven centuries later, should be an indication that understanding collapses is a massively dimensional problem, even given a long period of time to collect and analyse evidence. This collection and analysis is neither easy nor cheap, either, nor is the training of historians, ecologists, microbiologists, geoscientists, statisticians, or any of the other bright sparks who have contributed over the years.

Put another way, understanding “what went wrong” is a massive undertaking, requiring enormous human resources, systems of measurement, ways of sharing and aggregating data, schema for organizing explanatory models, etc. Right now it sounds like I’m talking about computers, but this process goes back to the quaranta giorni– a term in Venetian because at the time, only the Venetians (in Europe) were organized and together enough to create it. Essentially, knowledge of anything outside the experience of a single person is a form of techne.

On the Origins of Collapse Memes

That said, many individuals survived the black death, and also the Cultural Revolution, the fall of the Mesoamerican empires, the inundation of Doggerland, and pretty much any other disaster you want to name. Their stories have been woven into our awareness of life and death because the vision of total apocalypse is emotionally so compelling. Its a theme that resurfaces constantly in myth and fiction and frankly it does quite well there. Future disasters do quite well in fiction too, for that matter.

The problem is that wars, famine, diseases, etc tend to be boring, distressing and impersonal, punctuated by moments of pathos and terror that are also impersonal. They make, in other words, bad stories. They are great settings for better stories, though, and this is the fashion in which they have generally been used. Often these stories make a point, like the medieval flagellants, about something that is meaningful to the teller and the listener, either directly or through the set-up of characters and their inclinations, actions, and ultimately their fates. I refer you, for instance, to the Decameron, or the godawful Divergent series. These are stories with heroes who “carry the light” in some form or another, and their travails with exciting high points and clear opponents who in some fashion carry darkness within them.

By the way, I did not enjoy The Road but I liked it. I read the book and never saw the movie, and I read it as a satire- the man’s claims to be “carrying the light” stand starkly in contrast with his actions as yet another asshole scrounging, killing, and dying his way across a world he doesn’t even try to understand. This is only clear at the very end when the final unnamed character shows up, clearly having it together in terms of surviving, having a family, and not being a jerk to strangers. Who has the light?

Hubris

You can blame the Greeks for Hubris, or “pride offensive to the gods.” They wrote dramas and poems without end about the punishment meted out to mortals- and their children, their neighbors, their everybody- who thought they could get one over on the gods. They had an entire genre dedicated to tragedy, and no production was complete without a tragedy, and no tragedy was complete without a soliloquy by the tragic hero (or, as in Medea above, directed at him) explaining his hubris and showing the consequences of pride. Modern catastrophists love hubris too, at least as a plot element. The tale of a modern “collapse” is the tale of sudden understanding of error- “apocalypse” means “uncovering” or “revelation”- and collapse stories, both overtly fictional and… predictive… tend heavily towards tales of errors uncovered and ruefully exposed.

In fact, its something of a cliche- get the collapse predictor talking about whys and wherefores and they very quickly get up on whatever hobby horse they happen to favor at the moment. On the right this might be the loss of the gold standard or the number of brown-skinned humans sharing a planet with them; on the left it might be inequality or environmental catastrophe. Even when these are not the immediate causes of a “technological collapse” they tend to figure prominently in the telling of the distinction between who survives and who doesn’t.

But that’s not what this is about. This is about actual predictions.

Failure of Tech, Failure of Techne

If understanding massive catastrophes in retrospect requires an astonishing amount of tech, understanding them in the moment is simply unbelievable. I’ve written here about the incredible amount of global data resources dedicated to the recent ebola outbreak and what a difference it made in the course of the epidemic. Looking backwards, there were four major influenza pandemics in the 20th century. Should we be surprised that the largest and most deadly (1918) happened when the world’s governments weren’t talking to each other, when the young folks with a yen to understand things were off shooting each other in ditches, and when every misfortune was seen as a weapon of war? By contrast, SARS was completely novel (unlike the flu) and far more lethal and contagious, and yet was contained effectively through the prompt cooperative action of Chinese, Canadian, and international scientists.

Understanding a problem is a major step towards fixing it. HIV was killing people for seven decades before AIDS was recognized as a disease, including in the US since at least 1966. From the description of AIDS to the first semi-effective treatment (AZT in 1983) took two years. Lead was introduced into gasoline in 1921, the resulting fumes were linked by Needleman to poor child performance in schools in 1970, and unleaded gasoline was phased in beginning in 1976.

This introduces a paradox into apocalyptic predictions- essentially, these require a problem that stalls out during the brief comprehensible interlude- we know what’s wrong, but nobody fixes it. If it can be fixed, there’s no collapse. If it isn’t understood, there’s no prediction. There are crises that can fit into this strange interval- an asteroid headed for Earth, a spreading nuclear war- but these are highly selective. More likely is that something huge and catastrophic won’t really be understood for generations if not centuries, and then only assuming that enough of our techne lasts long enough to figure it out.

Don’t believe me? Why did the USSR fall apart? Its hard to remember that the Soviet Union did so very many things wrong, and yet none of these are clearly and unambiguously linked to the collapse of 1992. Masha Gessen is right that nobody really gets why so many Russians began dying young of disparate and preventable causes shortly thereafter either. There are people who will talk your ears off about Reagan, or alcoholism, or agricultural production, but if they’re honest they’re guessing- or substituting a good moral narrative for understanding. On a smaller scale the stock market is still plagued by “flash crashes,” and the symptoms I listed in the second try at this essay still seem suggestive and yet inexplicable:

an unexplained rise in maternal mortality, all-cause mortality among middle-aged white adults, alcohol-related deaths, suicides (ignore the graphics, veterans are only part of the toll), drug overdoses

When you start talking about predicting technological collapse in particular, you are predicting the complete insufficiency of the techne needed to understand- or predict- what you’re talking about. You are engaging in paradox.

That said…

That doesn’t mean that being unable to predict or understand a catastrophe means there’s nothing reasonable you can say in advance. For instance, if you know the middle ages you know that plague, crop failure, solar eclipse, a dead pope… pretty much whatever happened the Jews were going to be blamed for it. Nassim Taleb has made a career talking about “black swans”- events so unlikely they can’t be predicted, which is not the same as events too unthinkable to understand- and how organizations can be prepared for them without knowing what they might look like. There are also basic sociological realities about what happens when humans are thrown from routine into improvisational living- I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, and my prior statement about the surprising relative decency of refugee camps fits in here. It may not be possible to predict a collapse, but it seems reasonable to predict what happens next. Ran did that in 2006.

All this time you’re working with other groups to help people get food and water and medical care, to transform the infrastructure, and to deter violent crime, or clean up after it. There are drug gangs, right wing death squads, and the occasional marauding horde of government troops and/or bandits. There are giant storms and hard summers and winters. But the vast majority of your friends are not killed, and people go about their lives less fearful than they did at the peak of the Empire.

If you don’t have kids, you help raise other people’s kids. They don’t go to school, but jump right in doing what adults do, and spend a few weeks learning to read and write when they’re ready. By 2030, the city is full of gardens and orchards. You don’t know anyone with a car, but a few techies are still using old computers and surviving satellites and fiber optic lines to connect to a patchy internet. You hear strange stories of distant lands, and wonder where it’s all heading. At the end of a long and very interesting life, like all your ancestors (except the most recent), you die at home surrounded by people you love.

I’m not sure I can improve much on that.

But the Monsters?

Yes, and the monsters. I think the monsters were a bad metaphor on my part, but I was equating monsters with disasters and this is what I was trying to say: if there are monsters lurking, they are Lovecraftian, not Stephen-Kingian. They aren’t in the locked crypt with the warning on the door, ready to burst out with a roar and chase after the bad people who ignored the ancient injunctions. They’re part of the universe- they’re a part of the universe we haven’t imagined- and their hunger and ferocity are indifferent to the values and laws you want a monster to enforce for you. They won’t fulfill your prophecies of cosmic justice, they’ll just kind of suck, and you probably won’t ever get a good look at any of them. They are nouveau monsters, existential monsters for existential threats, they are the new scary, and we might as well realize that there are some fears you can neither face nor embrace and get used to that. Okay? Sorry about the confusion.
1. yes, I know, nukes.

On the Theology of Monsters, Take Two

This is my second attempt at this post, revising the first attempt which had a major structural problem and an extended digression in the middle.

This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. -Herman Melville


Back when I began this blog, lo these many moons, I wrote about horror that was indifferent to humanity, and how much more frightening it can be than big scary monsters with teeth. A week ago Ran issued the following challenge:

Now some of you think there’s going to be a global technological collapse, and I’m not sure you’re wrong, but I would ask you to weigh the possibility that you’re wrong, to write down a scenario with precise causality and a timeline, and to rethink your models and assumptions if they lead to wrong near-term predictions.

Fair enough, but also somehow wrong. I wrote to him asking for clarification and he specified this was a Kunstler-Greer collapse, where everything technological goes tits up and survivors have to make do with nineteenth century (at best) tools and lifeways. I’m certainly not going to be the one to make that claim seriously, but I also think the way the question is phrased makes it very difficult to answer.

When we’ve had technological collapses, of sorts, in the past, they’ve generally only been understood as technological in retrospect, and only after they have been mitigated if not reversed. The classic example of this is the discovery of the etiology of cholera- a disease that was seen as a moral consequence of slums and slum-dwellers was revealed, in the surprisingly short fullness of time, to be a bacterial infection spread by contaminated groundwater. The disassembly of a pump, construction of sewers and, eventually, sewage treatment effectively ended cholera in the first world.
Other examples need not be quite so dramatic- the blackout that affected the northeast in 2003 was not understood for years and may still be a bit hand-wavy in its official explanation. The flash crash phenomenon is largely inexplicable.

Of course, these last two mini-collapses were sited in “technological” domains of power distribution and stock trading, and unlike cholera never manifested as a moral panic. Which is what makes my next story so interesting:

Permafrost


Unlike carbon dioxide, anthropogenic emissions of which can be readily tracked, methane is a difficult “greenhouse gas” to analyze. For one thing, it decomposes in the geologically brief time period of a few decades into carbon dioxide, making it difficult to model historically. For another thing, while we primarily hear about emissions from clearly anthropogenic sources such as leaky gas wells, unmanaged landfills, and vented coal mines, the EPA lists “enteric fermentation” as the second most significant anthropogenic contributor of methane to the atmosphere. To you and I, that’s cow farts. Are cow farts anthropogenic? Yes. What would the farting ruminant population be like without human-driven animal husbandry? I honestly have no idea.

However, cow farts are a much smaller threat than the potentially “catastrophic” risk posed by the release of methane currently trapped under permafrost. Technically, this methane is the result of anaerobic fermentation in wet soil that has since frozen solid, but, goes the theory, as the climate warms, especially around the poles, the permafrost layer will thin and more of this trapped gas will escape into the atmosphere.

Except, that’s not what’s happening. This past year, in the grip of an el Nino and drought of some severity, Alaska caught fire in a big, big way. Sure, the heat of the surface fire penetrated the ground somewhat and directly melted the permafrost, and sure, the carbon released by burning vegetation contributed to global warming, but more frighteningly, the fires burned off the “duff,” the loose organic insulation layer that keeps permafrost permanently frosty. Next summer, when the air temperature in Alaska goes above freezing, a lot more of the ground will go above freezing too, reaching a methane-release tipping point far earlier than any of the temperature-alone melt models would have predicted.

So, was the el Nino and drought caused by climate change? Maybe. As I mentioned before, there have been civilization-ending el Nino events in the past, though the frequency seems to be increasing. More importantly, the question arises, is this actually a technological collapse? If I were to say to Ran, hey, el Nino events will increase in frequency, leading to non-linear increases in greenhouse gas emissions, would that count? Who decides that a collapse has occurred, and when?

Technology and Narrative


I doubt that the Moche understood ENSO. I doubt the Greenland Norse understood the Little Ice Age. Certainly, nobody who died of cholera before 1854 understood they were sick with bacterial dysentery. The luxury of understanding is granted only with time, and is purchased with knowledge gained in the interim. Recognizing that a world-ending catastrophe- and all catastrophes are world-ending, on some scale- is part of a complex chain of cause and effect, circumscribed by a narrative, comprehensible within the rules of common discourse, this is in itself a form of technology, and may well be considered the most advanced technology of all.

This is where the Kunstler-Greer model of collapse falls on its butt. Those stories are always moral narratives and should be viewed as novels- the collapse that characters endure are the logical consequences of their behaviors, and the drama is in the sudden revelation to survivors that they were wrong/lied to/unreasonably optimistic/generally bastards or otherwise culpable. The Kunstler-Greer collapse is a human monster, a demon that exposes the evil in the human world.

In the inhuman world, the surest sign of an actual technological collapse would be the inability to encompass and interpret what was happening; if a collapse is to be irremediable, it would also have to be permanently inexplicable. This is beyond the radio station going down and you can’t figure out why the internet has been out for a week- this would place the root causes beyond the technology of human knowledge and understanding for the meaningful future, even if the symptoms were as obvious as the bucket under the cholera cot. Or, as obvious as an unexplained rise in maternal mortality, all-cause mortality among middle-aged white adults, alcohol-related deaths, suicides (ignore the graphics, veterans are only part of the toll), drug overdoses… increasingly, the Russian prototype for an American collapse observer is not Dmitri Orlov cheerfully swapping vodka from the trunk of a wheezing Lada, but Masha Gessen, baffled an overwhelmed by the insidious, yet inexplicable, depopulation of her homeland.

Spoilers everywhere

Increasingly, this seems to be a more popular kind of apocalyptic horror. In William Gibson’s latest The Peripheral the “Jackpot” that separates the two timelines is described as numinous and vague, unclear even after its partial resolution; in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora the inability to understand ecosystem failure, or a novel pathogen, essentially is the story. HBO’s weird the Leftovers has made it clear that the Sudden Departure will not be explained. In Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus a would-be seer (and despicable antihero) tries and fails to garb a whitened, desolate, inhospitable and unseeable landscape- and his equally barren soul- in a fairy-tale menagerie of spirits and beasties which, when stripped away, leave nothing comprehensible behind. In an age of total information awareness, unknowable blankness is emerging as an existential horror all it own and- pace Melville- is accumulating its own color, mass and meaning, becoming a rebuke to the very assumption of narrative continuity.

To Ran and others I can only say, we won’t know what hit us. We won’t even know that we were hit. Isn’t that what we want to hear?

By the way, I tried and failed to work Barbara Ehrenreich into the discussion, and to paraphrase (since I can’t find the original quote) Chris Knowles saying something like “Pagans believe that nature is the embodiment of Gaia, a greek goddess. That they find this at all comforting suggests they have forgotten their Greek mythology.”

On Fish and Failure

This was a section of the Monster Theology post that really didn’t fit. But, its interesting, so I’m letting it stand alone.

The “golden age” of Peru, by some tellings, was the nineteenth century, when the country exported phosphate-rich guano from the Chincha islands by the ton, essentially fueling the global growth in agriculture that happened during this time. Why the Chinchas were covered in acres of guano is actually fairly simple- the Humboldt current brought in so many fish, for so many centuries, that seabirds nesting there could eat and poop without too much pressure from predators or their own population. When the guano was gone, Peru began exporting the fish directly, harvesting anchovies on the order of ten million tons per year, mostly for export. What wasn’t eaten by humans- and much wasn’t- was processed as a protein supplement for animal feed, it was that cheap.

Then, in 1972, el Nino redirected the Humboldt current. Anchovies went from twelve million tons to two million tons in a singe year. Seabirds and the export industry starved.

The problem wasn’t just economic, it was agricultural. Through an odd coincidence, the anchovies collapsed right when Earl Butz called for an end to commodity reserves and the growth of “hedge-row to hedge-row” farming. Farmers stepped in to replace the fish meal in their cattle feed with soybean meal, and by the time anchovy stocks began to recover (they have since collapsed, again) soybean acreage had nearly doubled in the US. In Brazil and Argentina, quickly becoming beef powerhouses, the increase was even more dramatic than this.

I wonder, sometimes, and I recognize that I have very little to go on here besides speculation, but I wonder whether that shift, from meat raised on fish meal to meat raised on soybean meal, might not have something to do with the weird trends in bad health seen beginning in the eighties and especially into the nineties. It might also explain the difference between the observations of Weston Price (who died in 1948, remember, back when cows ate grass) and the recent studies conducted by the WHO.

But of course, el Nino is nothing new. Neither, it turns out, is the sudden and tragic collapse of a civilization brought about by the failure of fisheries off the coast of Peru. See that little sculpture at the top of this interlude? Turns out the Moche- and plenty others- may have been taken out by el Nino as well.

The intransigence and ignorance of the white world might make that vengeance inevitable.

Some will be afraid of this knowledge; witchcraft should be liberated by it, liberated from petty concerns to pursue lives of beauty, liberated from the sleepwalking into death that our culture has made for us and our children. So I counsel, confront death. For witchcraft to be anything other than the empty escapism of the socially dysfunctional or nostalgia for bygone ages, it needs to feel the shape of its skull, venerate the dead and the sacred art of living and dying with meaning. We are all on the fierce path now.

One thing I am really liking lately, I mean *really* liking a lot, that actually makes me hopeful that there might be something worthwhile in the remainder of my lifetime to which I may contribute some small impetus or insight, is the suddent resurgence, dating largely to Peter Grey’s widely-reprinted essay “Rewilding Witchcraft” (see intro quote), of a strain of intellectual-political paganism.

My friends have had to endure my rants against the forms, seemingly borrowed from the labor movement back when foot-traffic and mass-employment ruled the economy, of protest and dissent, and the supposedly intellectual critique that has grown up around them. To wit, the concept of a “movement,” defined in reference to large crowds publicly endorsing a minority point of view, at some risk of violating, if not laws against heresy and wrong ideas, at least those against blocking sidewalks and dispersing when called upon, and structuring, to some extent, their lives around the internal consistencies that a rational investigation of that point of view would seem to require, while still allowing for the pursuit of material self-interest and progress as defined by enlightenment and post-enlightenment understandings of human well being and quality of life.

And yet, the political landscape does not fit this material any more than the physical landscape. Few in the west protest for what Walter Benjamin called “the rough and material things, without which there is nothing fine and spiritual.” Those fights have long been drowned in the rising flood of the personal, little stories of failure and why-didn’t-you-study-harder popping to the surface where union halls and churches once stood. When we gather, if we gather, it is because we are bereft of meaning and narrative, and, though tender and caveblind, we hope that in struggle we might find our tribe.

There doesn’t seem to be, for nearly anyone, a sense of place, reliable and secure, to which we can retire where our relationship to the world seems unshakable, or where permission to continue our lives, as we understand they *should* be, is readily available. Instead, we as a society behave like the children and other primates in the early studies of “attachment” before that term became code for baby bjorns, who are deprived of a steady social relationship with a supportive and comforting caregiver- frightened, angry, insecure, and dangerous. Yet, our “politics”- by which I mean the semi-organized leftist belief in membership, protest, “shutting down the system” etc, education as key, and the idea of enlightened self-interest- still seems baffled by this, like the reviewers of Harlow’s monkey studies who couldn’t understand why a baby monkey would choose a soft, snuggly yet barren mama monkey doll over a cold wire facsimile that provided milk- or safe drinking water, or affordable health care. Humans (and monkeys) will give up virtually anything to be part of a comforting story, and that story right now is best being told by some of the worst people we’ve seen in our lives.

This is why ISIS is recruiting middle-class Belgians, or why upper-class kids in the Columbus suburbs sell pills for the lulz. This is why people would rather see a party punch Mexicans in the face, than negotiate successfully with Iran. Adventure, daring, winning, the smug pleasure of seeing an adversary cringing or bloody, these are more potent than reducing the suicide rate, and “the left” has nothing going in the story department. The left continues to think, Jon Stewart-style, that providing facts and exposing hypocrisy will somehow triumph over alienation, rage, and winning. This is despite the understanding, articulated in an NPR interview last week with anthropologist Scott Atran, that appeals to moderation and rationality simply play into the fears of the global 99% that they will never have anything better to live for than a newer phone, or a job at a better call center.

With an eye to that gap, I give you one of the most interesting essays
I’ve read this month. Here we have not only Walter Benjamin, Margaret Mead, and James Baldwin, from whom I lifted the subject line of this post, but also Solon and Herodotus. The theme is that “progress” is a lie, and that time is not as important as you may think- those things that happened long ago are still happening, or quite capable of happening again, and the assumption that things are different this time is one of the most dangerous mistakes ever deployed in the service of dismissing the irrational, the bloodied, the furious, or the dead. And yes, it comes from a pagan website:

The Fire Is Here

This isn’t a one-off either. Two prominent bay area pagans were recently arrested in support of BLM’s Black Friday Protest in Oakland, and the folks at Gods and Radicals are doing a damned good job condensing the ethics of social justice around a hard, ancient core of community belief and faith. Look also to the poetic rituals of the Dark Mountain Project, look to the inexplicably weird refulgence of Die Krampus. If this goes anywhere, and I hope it does, it will be fascinating and beautiful to see what we now think of as the left flying banners of irrational mysticism, danger, adventure and attractive madness. I suggest you keep watching.

Food stamps oh no!

To everyone out there who is freaking out about the possibility of food stamps being “cut off” October 1 in case of a government shut down, chill the hell out. Actually, that’s two separate groups of people:

If you’re on food stamps

If you’re one of the one in six Americans who get SNAP/EBT, then yeah, this might be a bad situation. I probably don’t have to tell you that.

If you’re not on food stamps

What the hell is wrong with you? Stop prophesying riots and gun robberies. People who are using EBT to get food will still eat, they’ll just have to take a few steps to keep things going:

  • Eat cheaper, crappier food
  • Pay cash, which means
  • Skip payments on other items, like car insurance, cable, phone, electric, maybe rent
  • Granted, this is not good. This means that in the longer term, more people will be evicted, accumulate serious credit penalties, go to jail for driving without insurance, lose their jobs for lack of transport or telephones, sure. Over the longer term, this is a catastrophe. Also politically unlikely, sure, but don’t think that come October 4th, the “three meals from anarchy” thing (apocryphal, unless you count an 80’s sci-fi show) will kick in and you’ll be shot to death at your job at the front door of the sandwich shop. PS- EBT can’t be used to by sandwiches.

     

    Where We Are

    I have a friend who is a bit of a doctrinaire Marxist. We argue, cheerfully, about whether the primary crisis in the world economy is one of resource depletion or of the inherent contradiction in capitalism. If I understand correctly, the latter refers to the necessity of simultaneously depressing wages while expanding markets, a problem epitomized by an apocryphal exchange involving Walter Reuther, UAW:

    I went through this Ford engine plant about three years ago, when they first opened it. There are acres and acres of machines, and here and there you will find a worker standing at a master switchboard, just watching, green and yellow lights blinking off and on, which tell the worker what is happening in the machine. One of the management people, with a slightly gleeful tone in his voice said to me, “How are you going to collect union dues from all these machines?” And I replied, “You know, that is not what’s bothering me. I’m troubled by the problem of how to sell automobiles to these machines.

    This disagreement abruptly resolved itself two weeks ago with an extraordinary blog piece by Gail “The Actuary” Tverberg entitled How Economic Growth Fails. The fact is, both resource extraction and market development suffer from diminishing returns at the margins, and this leads, inevitably, to macroeconomic trouble.

    You Haul Sixteen Tons, What Do You Get?

    Lets start with the resource extraction side of the equation. You have a mine with a good seam of coal. You send 200 miners down every day, and get back 3200 tons of coal. You sell the coal, skim off operating expenses and a nice profit, and pay your miners.

    The seam runs out. You find a tapered seam connected to it, but now you send down 200 miners and only get 1500 tons of coal. You sell the coal… and you have to pay your miners less, because you can’t double the price and still sell any. Maybe you hire on another 200 miners, so that you can get 3000 tons per day, but now you really have to cut wages. The only thing that can save you is finding another seam of coal, large enough that each miner can pull up 16+ tons per day, before they all go back to school and start working as nurses aides.

    This makes inherent sense to people if you tell the story, because the law of diminish returns in blue-collar extraction industries is so obvious. But now lets go white collar and talk about coca-cola. You have a sales force of a thousand, who go out through the world and find places that have water, electricity, and no coca-cola. Coke is good, right? So when the sales people arrive, contract a water purification company to buy syrup and sell cold coke, the company does a bang up business. Lets say each sales worker gets one new bottling plant open per year.

    Eventually, though, those new markets are going to run out. You’ve run out of towns in Germany that just didn’t have ready coke. You’ve run out of urban centers in Pakistan. You’re down to waiting for small towns to get reliable utilities, or for protectionist countries to allow more US businesses. You still have your sales force of a thousand, but now it takes two years to open a bottling plant. Your marginal market expansion- the thing that the salespeople are supposed to do- is now half as productive. What do you do? Same as the mine owner- hire more people and pay them a lot less.

    The problem is, these are coupled networks. When your sales force stops earning enormous paychecks, they stop buying enormous houses that require three air conditioners to keep cool. So they buy less electricity, which means lower demand for coal, which means more underemployed, underpaid coal miners sitting around drinking tap water instead of coke. This is the definition of a deflationary spiral: the problem is the customers are broke.

    Does this have something to do with oil, or China?

    Eh, so what, right? We’re headed for Weimar-esque hyperinflation? Look at Zimbabwe? Sorry but no. Hyperinflation happens when the government goes broke before people do, when there’s still production of basic commodities and services and people are able to find them, but can’t negotiate in the available currency. Most of the arguments I’ve seen for impending US hyperinflation are at their core moral arguments- it shouldn’t be possible to borrow your way through life, hence doom will fall on those who try, namely the Fed who we don’t like for other less printable reasons. Right? Buy goooooooooold….

    Only moral arguments don’t mean much economically (if they did, we could start with climate change). The fall in the price of oil, rather precipitous given the modest growth in production, probably has to do with the same problem Guitar Center is facing in the link above. Globally, fewer people have the disposable income to put towards oil-intensive stuff, just like domestically stagnating real wages mean nobody has an extra thou for a high-end guitar.

    My bet is that today’s (and last week’s) stock collapse reflects a problem of prediction. Up until China started going wonky, American and European businesses based their forecasts on the assumption that soon, they would be selling things like mid-grade circular saws, e-readers, tankless water heaters to “emerging” Chinese, Indian and Brazilian middle-class consumers. Now, with China sneezing mightily and Brazil catching pneumonia (China is Brazil’s primary export market), those forecasts have to be re-envisioned; consumer sales this decade may only reflect current middle-class consumers- the “coal seam” of emerging markets may be much smaller than originally surveyed.

    Two obvious effects- the “miners” are going to be paid less, and capital dedicated to meeting last month’s plan for increased capacity is going to sit idle. The result is sort of like the housing crisis, only for everything. Housing prices and mortgage financing got cheaper, but everybody got smacked by the recession and still couldn’t afford to buy. If this turns into another mini-2007, we’ll see cheaper stuff, but you and I aren’t going to have any cash to buy it with.

    Interestingly, this deflationary problem- nobody has wages, because nobody is buying, because nobody has wages- is exactly what Keynesian stimulus programs were invented to solve. Give people at the bottom a measured amount of cash for doing something semi-relevant (Keynes said burying empty bottles, Roosevelt said recording the memories of old people) and they’ll spend it buying stuff that they- and everybody else- really needs. The people they buy from will have the money to go back into business and buy from each other, and eventually “the economy” starts moving again. Of course, cynics will argue that it took WWII, which was “good for the economy” (can you imagine what would have happened to “the economy” if the US had lost? war is only “good” when you win), and less cynical people will point to the earned income tax credit (EITC) as a successful example of Keynesianism that everyone takes for granted. Whatever, I’m not really an economist.

    Poverty, Wealth and the Future

    First, I can’t say enough good about Rhyd Wildemuth’s esssay on the Spirit of Poverty. It has clearly touched a nerve, and I’m frankly embarrassed how many writers I respect have jumped up to condemn it. Maybe condemn is a strong word- contest it might be better- but clearly emotions are running high. Being reminded how destructive and entitled your expectations are is never comfortable in the abstract, and Rhyd has concretely outed himself as a survivor of the kind of poverty that puts most of our frustrations with the electric bill and the price of burritos firmly in their place. That feels like a challenge to the face, and well that it should, because we have an entire industry- multiple industries- committed to ensuring that the people with the moral authority to challenge us face to face on the consequences of our consumerism are never permitted to do so.

    The Problem with Collapse

    Once upon a time I was a collapse blogger, or at least I was read by people who also read collapse bloggers, and I read a lot of collapse bloggers, and even to the extent that I consider myself a critical voice, I probably helped, in an infinitesimal fashion, propagate that meme between 2005 and 2010 or so. There are reasons why I will never fully repudiate that- the future is not an independent variable, and what you believe will happen is not necessarily related to what you want to happen. I don’t think good things are going to happen to the climate, to commodity markets, and to the lives of literally billions of people across the planet who will pay the price for these changes in blood.

    However, that’s not what collapse blogging is ever about. Collapse blogging, in the first world, has traditionally been a skill-share for exempting oneself for the consequences of the last two centuries of economic activity. At its worst, this is fantasizing about killing those neighbors who have never quite made it into our hardened hearts. On a less horrible level, it assumes that there is something amazing and unique about some individuals that justifies their elevation over the suffering their lives have caused.

    And, a fundamental assumption is that the lifestyle that will best survive the zombie apocalypse (can we please be done with non-sarcastic invocations of zombies?) is that of the wealthy playboy. Oh, nobody actually describes it that way, but so many of the “skills” promulgated by collapseniks depend on social circumstances- free-and-clear land ownership, a benign relationship with law enforcement, able bodies, no employment or social obligations, access to surplus capital to invest in solar panels, tractors, water purification, wilderness, etc- that are in every particular synonymous with the highest level of social capital in todays (pre-collapse) world. Basically, there is no difference between fantasizing about surviving a collapse, in the way popularized by everyone from WND to Sepp Holzer, and fantasizing about retiring young and playing. It is the American wealth fantasy, in which saving and consuming in the right way leads to a life of individual gratification free of commitment and toil. That’s not a realistic approach to a grim future. There are skills worth learning, but they might not be the ones you’re thinking of.

    Don’t believe me? Ask your local permaculturist to teach you for free, or pay you for your labor. Or, god-help-us, deed their land holdings to a collective that includes people too young to afford acreage. Wealth and status aren’t a part of the package, they are the package.

    You Might Have to Live Like a Refugee

    So, what is an ethical soothsayer to do? I do, as mentioned above, still see the future as a rather dark place, with droughts, food shortages, fuel shortages, mass relocation and social dislocation, a world in which consequences are as global as we pretend benefits are today. In fact, like Tom James I literally see visions of this around me today. Its like an overlay, or a double-exposed negative. This is a phenomenon that needs an answer. What to do?

    I think the answer is this- instead of dreaming about all the things we would do if we were rich (sustainable gardens, off-grid power, green-built houses), its time to start dreaming about what we would do if we were poor. Not poor like you hate paying your car insurance. Not even poor like Rhyd’s childhood.

    Imagine yourself in a refugee camp. For the sake of Americans who have never seen one, some definitions are in order- a refugee camp is not the same as a prison camp, or an internment camp (and there are people who object to the term internment camp altogether). Refugee camps are a concession by a host country to a migrant population that has arrived, fleeing disaster, whether anyone wants them there or not. Refugees are free to come and go as they please, but as they often lack work or housing permits, have only the possessions they carried, and may not speak the language, they have few options for integrating into the host country. Also, they may be at risk from xenophobic elements of the host society.

    That said, refugees are no more or less likely to have mental health or substance use problems than anyone else, generally represent a wide range of occupations and skillsets, and are no less likely to build a positive and constructive society within the camp than any other group of humans would be. Generally the host country and international groups (say, the UNHCR) provide basic food, improvised shelter materials, and hygiene, and a thriving economy starts up in and around the camp itself.

    And, contrary to what the average survivalist would have you believe, life in a refugee camp can actually be not too terrible. (there are bad examples, but generally refugee camps that are too awful to survive are evacuated.)

    So your meditation for today is this: Who would you be in a refugee camp? What if everything you take for granted about material comfort were stripped together, but you were still living with people- initially strangers- in a similar fix with no animus towards you? How would you be happy? How would you become a necessary participant in the social fabric around you? What informal social services could you provide? What do people value you for? Who would you look for- need to find- if you were in a refugee camp? What activities and groups can you simply not live without? How would you seek them out? What can you do now to be a better person later if you end up in a refugee camp? I am telling the truth when I say I contemplate this literally every day.

    Why This Matters

    As William Gibson says, the future is already here, its just not evenly distributed. If your answer was “I’d run away and live in the woods” then you have more meditation ahead of you. The whole point of the future is that contingency, poverty, and desolation will not longer be things one can avoid by buying out, or living in a “safe” country, or putting a panic room in the basement. The world is full of people who have never had these options and they can be shining role models for you if you choose, but presuming that you will always be exempt is simply no longer acceptable. That is the lesson of the spirit of poverty.

    My Answers

    People who get my not-infrequent email rants will recognize the following. I came up with three skills that will be useful whoever you are, and however the future turns out near you. They are, in order:

    • Learn, if at all possible, English, Spanish, and Mandarin (Pǔtōnghuà). You don’t have to be literate, just a functional speaker.
    • Play futbol/soccer
    • Learn to share a household with multiple unrelated adults.

    To which Storm adds:

    • Figure out a cheap birth control method that works

    And also:

    • Learn to make friends with strange dogs

    You are free to come up with your own additions. Please feel free to comment or email!

    Best,
    Anne