Archive for November, 2007

>Lifeboat Time

2007/11/30 1 comment

>by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (November 29 2007)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

One of the more notable news stories of the last week concerned the fate of M/S Explorer, a cruise ship built for polar seas that turned out to be not quite up to the rigors of the job. Before dawn on November 23, while cruising just north of the Antarctic peninsula, she rammed into submerged sea ice, leaving a fist-sized hole in the hull and water coming in faster than her pumps could handle. Fifteen hours later the Explorer was on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately the captain had the great good sense to order an evacuation well in advance. Even more fortunately, everyone knew what to do, and did it without quibbling. Crew and passengers abandoned all their possessions except the clothes they wore, donned survival suits, climbed into lifeboats, and spent five cold hours watching the Explorer fill up with water and heel over until another ship came to pick them up. Later the same day they were safe at a Chilean coast guard base on the South Shetland Islands, waiting for a plane ride home.

I thought of that story this morning while surveying the latest round of debates about peak oil, global warming, the imploding debt bubble, and half a dozen other symptoms of the unfolding crisis of industrial society now under way. By this point there are few metaphors for crisis more hackneyed than the fatal conjunction of ship and iceberg, but the comparison retains its usefulness because it throws the issues surrounding crisis management into high relief. When the hull’s pierced and water’s rising belowdecks, the window of opportunity for effective action is brief, and if the water can’t be stopped very soon, it’s lifeboat time.

By almost any imaginable standard, that time has arrived for the industrial world. Debates about whether world petroleum production will peak before 2030 or not miss a point obvious to anybody who’s looked at the figures: world petroleum production peaked in November 2005 at some 86 million barrels of oil a day, and has been declining slowly ever since. So far the gap has been filled with tar sands, natural gas liquids, and other unconventional liquids, all of which cost more than ordinary petroleum in terms of money and energy input alike, and none of which can be produced at anything like the rate needed to supply the world’s rising energy demand. As depletion of existing oil fields accelerates, the struggle to prop up the current production plateau promises to become a losing battle against geological reality.

Meanwhile the carbon dioxide generated by the 84 million barrels a day we’re currently pumping and burning, along with equally unimaginable volumes of coal and natural gas, drives changes in climate that only a handful of oil company flacks and free-market fundamentalists still insist aren’t happening. Worried scientists report from Greenland and West Antarctica that for the first time since measurements began, liquid water is pooling under both these huge continental glaciers – the likely precursor to an ice sheet collapse that could put sea levels up fifty to sixty feet worldwide within our lifetimes.

In related news, Atlanta may just be on the verge of edging out New Orleans as the poster child for climate catastrophe. Unless the crippling years-long drought over the southeast United States gives way to heavy rains very soon, Atlanta will run completely out of drinking water sometime in the new year. The city government has had to explain to worried citizens that they are out of options, and there aren’t enough tanker trucks in all of Dixie to meet the daily water needs of a big city. Nobody is willing to talk about what will happen once the last muddy dregs in the Georgia reservoirs are pumped dry, and the drinking fountains, toilet tanks, and fire hydrants of greater metropolitan Atlanta have nothing to fill them but dust.

As Macchiavelli commented in a different context, though, people care more about their finances than their lives, and even the Atlanta papers have seen the drought shoved off the front page now and then by the latest round of implosions in the world of high finance. For those of my readers who haven’t been keeping score, banks and financial firms around the world spent most of the last decade handing out mortgages to anybody with a pulse, packaging up the right to profit from those mortgages into what may just be the most misnamed “securities” in the history of financial markets, and selling them to investors around the world.

On this noticeably unsteady foundation rose the biggest speculative bubble in recorded history, as would-be real estate moguls borrowed dizzying sums to buy up property they were convinced could only go up in value, while investors whose passion for profit blinded them to the risk of loss snapped up a torrent of exotic financial products whose connection to any significant source of value can be safely described as imaginary. All this hallucinated wealth, though, depended on the theory that people with no income, job, or assets could and would pay their mortgage bills on time, and when this didn’t happen, the whole tower of cards began coming apart. Some of the world’s largest banks have already taken billions of dollars in losses, and nobody is even pretending that the economic carnage is over yet.

Connect the dots and the picture that emerges will be familiar to those of my readers who have taken the time to struggle through the academic prose of How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse {*}. One of the central points of that paper is that the decline and fall of a civilization unfolds in a series of crises separated by incomplete recoveries. The point is not an original one; Arnold Toynbee discussed the same rhythm of breakdown and respite most of a century earlier in his magisterial A Study of History (Oxford University Press, 1934 – 1961). If that same pattern will shape the fate of our own civilization – and it’s hard to think of a reason why it should not – the second wave of crisis in the decline and fall of the industrial world may be breaking over our heads right now.


No, that wasn’t a misprint. Historians of the future will likely put the peak of modern industrial civilization between 1850 and 1900, when the huge colonial empires of the Euro-American world hit the zenith of their global reach. The first wave in the decline of our civilization lasted from 1929 to 1945, and was followed by a classic partial recovery in which public extravagance masked the disintegration of the imperial periphery. Compare the unsteady, hole-and-corner American economic empire of today with the British Empire’s outright dominion over half the world in 1900, say, and it’s hard to miss the signs of decline.

Today we may well be facing the beginning of the next wave. One advantage this concept offers is the realization that the experience of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations may offer a useful perspective on what’s coming. In the summer of 1929, nobody I know of predicted the imminent arrival of unparalleled economic disaster, followed by the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the bloodiest war in human history. Such things seemed to be stowed safely away in the distant past. From today’s perspective, though, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that something not unlike the bitter experiences of 1929-1945 – different in detail, surely, but equivalent in scale – may be in the offing.

If that’s likely – and I believe it is – we’re in much the same situation as the passengers of M/V Explorer were last Friday, but with an unwelcome difference. No alarm has been sounded, no order to evacuate announced over the p/a system. The captain and half the crew insist that nothing is wrong, while the other half of the crew insist that everything will be all right if they can only replace the current captain with another of their own choosing. The only warning being given comes from a handful of passengers who took the time to glance down into the hold and saw the water rising there, and while some people are listening to the bad news, next to nobody’s making any preparations for what could be a very, very rough time immediately ahead.

Those of my readers who have been paying attention know already that the preparations I have in mind don’t include holing up in a mountain cabin with crates of ammunition, stacks of gold bars, and way too many cans of baked beans in the pantry. Nor do they involve signing onto the latest crusade to throw one batch of scoundrels out of office so another batch of scoundrels can take its place. Rather, I’m thinking of a couple of friends of mine who are moving from the east coast megalopolis where they’ve spent most of their adult lives to a midwestern city small enough that they can get by without a car. I’m thinking of the son-in-law of another friend who is setting up a forge and learning blacksmithying in his spare time, so he’ll have a way of earning a living when his service economy job evaporates out from under him. I’m thinking of another couple of friends who just moved back to his aging parents’s farm to help keep it running.

For a great many people just now, actions like those are unthinkable, and even the simplest steps to prepare for financial crisis – paying down debts, reining in expenditures, making sure savings are in federally insured banks rather than the imaginary economy of paper assets, and putting by extra food in the cupboard and useful supplies in the shed to deal with the spot shortages and business bankruptcies that usually accompany economic crisis – are off the radar screen. That’s unfortunate, because some tolerably simple changes made now, while there’s still time to make them, could spare a lot of people a lot of grief not that far down the road.

It’s no fun to be jolted out of bed before dawn by a warning siren, and told that you have to head for the nearest lifeboat station, leaving everything behind but the clothes on your back. It’s even less fun to climb down into an open lifeboat in twenty degrees Fahrenheit weather, knowing you’ll be tossed around on the gray Antarctic seas until somebody responds to the SOS – if anybody does. Still, add up all the unpleasantness of both and they’re still preferable to a last-minute scramble for survival on a sinking ship, when half the lifeboats and survival suits are already under water and the deck is heeling over so fast the other half may be out of reach.

Millions of people went through some approximation of that last experience between 1929 and 1945. Millions more may undergo the same sort of thing once the current crisis gets under way. There’s been plenty of talk about peak oil and the twilight of the industrial world, and that’s been useful in its way, but talk doesn’t substitute for constructive action when lifeboat time arrives.

The Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), John Michael Greer has been active in the alternative spirituality movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of a dozen books, including The Druidry Handbook (Weiser, 2006). He lives in Ashland, Oregon.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Outsourcing Libraries

>by David Bollier

On The Commons (November 06 2007)

There may be no more eloquent statement about the erosion of our civic connectedness than the news that public libraries around the country are starting to outsource their daily operations. Yes, public libraries are being privatized. This should not be entirely surprising, given how jails, highways and even military operations are being privatized these days. Yet it does raise the distressing question – If libraries are vulnerable, where will this momentum for dismantling our civic institutions end?

Julia Silverman of the Associated Press reports {1} that about fifteen cities and towns around the country have outsourced their libraries by signing on with Library Systems and Services, Inc (LSSI), a privately held Germantown, Maryland, company. Among the cities that have privatized their library management are San Juan and Leander in Texas; Redding and Moorpark in California; and the Jackson-Madison County library system in Tennessee.

The reason given for outsourcing library services is always the same: cost savings. But rarely do calmer-minds-in-charge stop to ask how those savings are achieved and what they communicate to the public. The first step in privatization is the hiring of new employees and the laying off of existing public employees and union members. LSSI also shortens library hours, sometimes dramatically. To reap new efficiencies, one can imagine a standardization of book acquisition. Will the new management really care about local needs and sensibilities?

The biggest loss from privatization may be the changed image of the public library. A civic institution serving public needs becomes a quasi-business dedicated to profit. That, in turn, changes our commitment to it. Would you volunteer and sacrifice to help out a local library that is run by an out-of-state corporation?

“This is a shift from the public trust into private hands”, one librarian lamented after his library was privatized. “Libraries have always been a source of information for everyone and owned by no one”. Libraries are not just another “cost-center” on a budget sheet; they are symbols of a community, democratic culture and equal opportunity. The privatization of libraries symbolizes our political unwillingness to provide for the common good.

Most cities and towns have financial troubles at one point or another, and any responsible government has to make ends meet. But it is telling that this necessity is not being met with belt-tightening or higher taxes – or some other community-based solution – but with a surrender of the institution itself to a private contractor. Our problem may not be with municipal finances per se (although much could be done there), but with our waning sense of the commons … at least, in fifteen cities and towns.

Link {1}:

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Opting Out of Junk Mail

>by David Bollier

On The Commons (November 07 2007)

As the holiday season approaches and we brace ourselves for a blizzard of unsolicited catalogs, it’s perhaps worth asking: Is the US Postal Service really serving our long-term interests in promoting junk mail? It is a little-known fact that the post office actively encourages junk mailers to send us nineteen billion unsolicited catalogs a year. Second and third class mailing constitutes a huge segment of its revenues.

The post office and junk mailers argue that they are doing us a favor. After all, the revenues from junk mail help keep everyone’s mailing rates lower. But should that be the only standard that they should guide them?

Forget about our individual annoyance at getting a mailbox full of mail we don’t want. (About eighty percent of my daily mail is junk.) The real issue is the harm to the environment. It takes over eight million tons of trees to produce the paper for each year’s output of catalogs. Put this in a larger context: Nearly half of the planet’s original forest cover is gone today. Forests have effectively disappeared in 25 countries, and another 29 have lost more than ninety percent of their forest cover. Deforestation contributes between twenty percent and 25% of all carbon pollution, causing global climate change.

Junk mail contributes to these problems, and the US Postal Service and its bulk-mailing customers are more a part of the problem than the solution. If it were not so intent on encouraging junk mailings, the Postal Service might better represent our collective interest in saving the planet. But ever since Congress mandated that the post office must turn a profit, and not merely be a government service that has a larger mission and vision, it has gotten used to coddling one of its biggest customers.

This helps explains why the post office has not made it easy for people to opt out of catalogs and other junk mailings. If there were an easy way for households to decline unsolicited mass mailings, it could have a huge impact. Instead, the post office, with a dwindling base of first-class mail and a huge number of employees, feels compelled to maximize its economic “through-put” (junk mail) despite the obvious harm to the environment. In a very real sense, the commons is subsidizing the post office’s bottom line. The full costs of sending billions of catalogs through the mail are not borne by merchants who mail catalogs, but by the environment.

So what is to be done?

I was thrilled to learn of a new website, Catalog Choice that was recently launched by the Ecology Center, and endorsed by a number of environmental groups. You can go to the site,, and ask that your name be removed from the mailings of more than 600 catalogs. Since the site went public a month ago, more than 113,000 people have signed up to opt-out of over 800,000 catalogs: an amazing launch to this project.

It’s too late to stop the mailing of this year’s holiday crush of catalogs, but you can start the new year off on the right foot. And the more people who join this effort, the more likely that it will pressure the post office and junk-mail industry to reduce gratuitous mailings.

Over the long term, it’s time to take a closer look at how the Postal Service is serving the environment. Its website lists a number of modest “sustainability initiatives” – alternative-fuel vehicles, recycling, et cetera – but nary a mention of the junk mail. So who will step up to name and tackle this problem? In the meantime, go to Catalog Choice and do your part.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>What Was Behind the Honey Bee Wipeout?

2007/11/29 1 comment

>Everyone has a theory why the honeybees started dying off. Try malnutrition.

by Gina Covina, Terrain

AlterNet (October 16 2007)

On Alan Wilson’s table at the Oakland Farmers’ Market, row after row of glass honey jars catch the early morning sun that angles down Ninth Street. Some of the honey gleams a reddish brown, some a paler amber, depending on the particular mix of flower species the bees foraged. All of it was produced by Wilson’s colonies, which number a third of what he had last fall, before the infamous bee die-off that afflicted growers around the world. “I’d better get the honey while I can”, one customer remarks.

The flurry of media attention given this winter’s bee losses, now labeled “colony collapse disorder”, has updated the world of bees for a heretofore clueless public. Our image of honeybees is a lot like our bucolic images of farm animals – and just as far from the brutal truth of today’s corporate agriculture. We picture fields of clover, blossoming orchards, the wildflowers beneath the trees, filled with happy bees industriously gathering nectar and pollen to take back to the hive. As the bees gather pollen, they transfer it from plant to plant, thus assuring cross-pollination.

Fewer people can picture what happens at the hive, where the bees feed the protein-rich pollen to their developing brood. The adults live on honey they make from collected nectar – sipped from the throats of flowers into the bees’ honey stomachs, disgorged at the hive into the hexagonal wax combs made by the bees, fanned by bee wings to evaporate excess moisture until it reaches the perfect syrupy consistency, and then sealed with a wax cap to keep it clean and ready to sustain the colony over the winter. In order to do all this, bees rely on a diverse range of flowers blooming over a wide stretch of the year.

The honeybee (Apis mellifera) is a European native, one of very few bee species in the world to store honey in bulk and live fulltime in large colonies (30,000 to 100,000 individuals). It is the only bee with a long history of intensive management by people. For almost all of this time, and continuing today in many parts of the world, the rosy picture of bee life painted above is largely accurate. But when beekeeping meets industrial agriculture, the result is very different. Colony collapse disorder may have many contributing causes, but it comes down to bees hitting the biological limits of our agricultural system. It’s not so much a bee crisis as a pollination crisis. And we may end up calling it agricultural collapse disorder.

It’s a rare beekeeper in the United States who can survive by selling honey. The trade loophole that has flooded this country with low-cost Chinese honey for the past ten years guaranteed that (fortunately for beekeepers, that hole has just been plugged by new federal tariff regulations). The only income remaining has been in pollination services. Alan Wilson’s bees are rented out for almond pollination starting in February. After that they go south to the orange groves, then all the way to North Dakota where they make clover honey. Wilson’s Central Valley location near Merced has little to offer bees over the dry summer months except roadside star thistle and the brief flowering of cantaloupes in August. Nearby agricultural chemicals are a concern, especially the defoliant used on cotton before harvest. Just the drift from the defoliant has taken the paint off Wilson’s hives. Still, this year he plans to keep his bees closer to home where he can manage them more intensively and try to increase their numbers.

Every commercial beekeeper has different arrangements, but each involves long-distance trucking and the California almond crop. Almonds are entirely dependent on the seasonal importation of honeybees. Growers can’t get crop insurance coverage unless they have at least two bee colonies per acre at almond blossom time; some growers use up to five colonies per acre for heavier yields. Over 800,000 Central Valley acres are planted in almond trees. As beekeeper Randy Oliver says, it is “monoculture at its absolute worst – they don’t allow one species of weed to grow”: mile after mile of bare soil and almond trees. No native pollinators can survive on this wasted landscape to ease the honeybees’ burden, and nothing lives to sustain bees before or after the almond bloom.

Truckloads of bees begin to arrive as early as November from all over the nation – it takes virtually all of this country’s commercially operated pollination colonies to cover California’s almonds. While the bees roll down the highways, hive entrances boarded up, or wait in Central Valley bee yards for the trees to bloom, they’re fed a mixture of high fructose corn syrup meant to replace nectar, along with soy protein meant to replace pollen. (Some beekeepers, Wilson among them, have switched to beet syrup as a safer though more expensive alternative.) Oliver sums up the patent absurdity: “When bugs from the east coast have to be trucked to California to pollinate an exotic tree because California has no bugs, it’s a pretty whacked-out agricultural system”.

Oliver’s 500 bee colonies – he was lucky, with losses under ten percent – follow a relatively short migratory truck route that takes them from Central Valley almonds to Sierra foothill wildflowers to Nevada alfalfa. He attributes his success to fewer and shorter moves, reliance on pasture forage for much of the year, and avoidance of artificial feeding. “Some of these guys move their bees a dozen times a year”, he says. Popular pollination routes include apples and blueberries, which rely on honeybees for ninety percent of their pollination, peaches (fifty percent), and oranges (thirty percent). Farmers won’t bother planting squash or melons if they can’t get beehives in place by bloom time. One-third of all US crops depend on honeybee pollination.

It hasn’t been this way for long. Even thirty years ago growers could rely on a combination of native pollinating insects and local honeybees for most crops. In 1970, there were 35 beekeepers in Alan Wilson’s area; now there are two. As farms grew more and more of fewer and fewer crops, using petrochemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, vast tracts of land have gradually approached the reductionist goal of supporting no life at all except the target crop. It’s not just the almonds – every crop is grown this way. That’s why it’s called industrial agriculture, or factory farming.

Bee researchers have been calling bees “the canary in this coal mine”, a different version of the birds and the bees. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein has been popping up all over the Internet: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Einstein never said it, but the instant ubiquity of the sentiment says everything.

Though the media only picked it up this year, bees have actually been in trouble for the past couple of decades. Mites – parasitic insects small enough to use bees as their hosts – jumped from other species to honeybees, another example of collateral damage from global transportation. First tracheal mites in the 1980s, then varroa mites in the 1990s – even before last winter, the world’s honeybee population had declined by half in thirty years.

UC Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen points out that before the mites arrived, winter losses of five to ten percent of a beekeeper’s colonies were the norm. The mites increased yearly losses to 25 percent by the late 1980s, and now we’re at forty percent or higher, with some years better than average and others catastrophic. Randy Oliver says, “If we made a list of collapses of the last twenty years, this winter’s would not make the top five”. Last year’s losses were bad for Alan Wilson, but the last four years together have decimated his colonies by over ninety percent. The only beekeepers doing substantially better are the very small percentage practicing non-chemical mite control coupled with little or no trucking or artificial feeding – in other words, labor-intensive vigilance combined with lower pollination income. It’s not a financially viable option for many fulltime beekeepers.

The difference with this winter’s losses is not having an identified cause, and therefore no quick (even if temporary) fix. For tracheal mites, beekeepers developed nontoxic preventive treatments – Alan Wilson successfully doses his bees on a mixture of Crisco, sugar, and peppermint extract. Varroa mites proved trickier, and beekeepers started down the slippery slope of synthetic insecticide use. “Until the mid-1990s nobody dreamed of using chemicals in beehives”, Oliver says. Once they did, the race was on, with insecticide-resistant varroa mites evolving neck-in-neck with the newest chemical treatment. European beekeepers, who have had the varroa mite longer, have pretty much given up on chemicals and use an Integrated Pest Management approach. US beekeepers who go this route find it labor- and attention- intensive, and effective within its parameters (not eradication but healthy bees living with a smaller number of mites). According to Oliver, “We’re just prolonging our agony as long as we continue to use chemical treatments”.

Everyone agrees the honeybee buzzed into the 21st century carrying a heavy load of stress. Colonies were weakened by mites, perhaps by chemicals used to kill the mites, and probably by at least some of the 25 different viruses carried by varroa mites. Add in a fungus, nosema, that’s tolerated by healthy bees but a problem for already weakened hives. Then there’s the stress of long-distance truck travel, longer distances for more bees every year. The small hive beetle, an African native recently found in Florida hives, posed another challenge; aggressive African honeybees attack the beetle, but European bees, bred to be docile, let it overrun the hive.

Cell phone interference has been proposed as a threat to bees, based on reports of a German study showing bees unable to find their way home in the presence of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. This particular theory must be called inconclusive at best, since the study was not designed with enough apicultural knowledge to produce reliable results.

No bee taken from the hive for the first time, as was done in the study, would be able to find its way back, since bees navigate primarily by landmarks, not electromagnetic homing sensors. Their first few excursions are short orientation flights, not blind trips in a box to a release point.

Of all these factors, many beekeepers judge varroa mites the most consistently debilitating. But there’s another weakening influence more obvious and more integral to the larger agricultural dilemma. It’s the stressor Mussen calls the most important of all – bee malnutrition. High-fructose corn syrup and soy protein are not any more nutritious for bees than they are for humans (see Spring 2007), and bees in transit and between pollination jobs often must subsist on nothing but these non-foods. Compounding the problem, we’re talking genetically modified corn and soy, every cell of which contains a bacterial insecticide. Are bees not insects? US studies have indicated that Bt corn pollen does not kill healthy bees or brood reared on it, but a German study showed that Bt pollen led to “significantly stronger decline in the number of bees” in hives already weakened by varroa mites.

We do know that corn pollen in general is poor bee food, high in fiber and low in protein. The Midwest, up until now the country’s best bee forage habitat, this year is being planted much more aggressively to GM corn as a source for ethanol – aggressive meaning planting marginal areas and edges usually left to the asters and goldenrods that are high-quality pollen sources in late summer when bees need to raise the generation that will overwinter. Even when bees are out foraging for real nectar and non-GMO pollen, for much of the year they are likely to be ingesting a monocultured diet due to their use as pollinators for industrial-scale agriculture – nothing but almond, then nothing but apple, then only watermelon. They’re exposed to pesticides used on their forage crops as well. Oh – and one more influence to factor into the equation – very hot weather can damage the protein content of pollen, decreasing its food value for bees. Global warming is kicking our butts from more directions than we can comprehend.

Given these conditions, last winter’s losses can hardly be considered a surprise. Neither can the failure of bee researchers to come up with one specific cause, much less a magic bullet cure. Still, the kind of thinking that got us this far continues. According to Mussen, “the only hope is the USDA Tucson lab” which is working on a liquid feed that bees can eat all year. Randy Oliver calls this the “holy grail” of bee research. The USDA’s proprietary formula, if they come up with one that works, will be patented and licensed to a commercial producer, and the whole agricultural system may manage to lurch along for a few more years, complete with pollinators hauled from Florida to California in time for the almond bloom.

How did all those almonds get pollinated this year, on the heels of beekeepers’ discoveries that half (in some cases up to ninety percent) of their colonies had suddenly gone missing? It wouldn’t have happened without a change in regulations that allowed bees to be imported from Australia. Bee businesses Down Under went into boom mode, sending 100,000 packages of bees to the States. A package is a starter kit of about 10,000 worker bees and a queen, enclosed in a small screened box with a sugar water feeder. The receiving beekeeper shakes the package into a waiting hive, and given proper nectar and pollen resources, within a month a new generation of bees will be expanding the colony.

The Australian influx may be short-lived, as a colony of Indian bees (Apis cerana) was recently discovered living aboard a yacht off Australia. The Indian bee is host to yet another mite that could wreak havoc if it spreads to the European honeybee. Another factor in almond pollination this year was the rental price for a bee colony, which averaged $150, nearly twice what it was last year. This was the first year in which the income beekeepers realized from almond pollination surpassed the income received for the entire US honey crop. There’s talk of opening the Canadian border for next year’s almond season.

To paraphrase Randy Oliver, we’re prolonging our agony by continuing with this profoundly unworkable agricultural system. Suddenly terms like “organic” and “biodiversity” shift from boutique buzzwords to elements of survival. This country has 4,500 species of native insects that are potential pollinators. On the East Coast, where farms are much smaller, more diverse, and broken up by uncultivated land, native insects account for up to ninety percent of crop pollination. Studies done on Costa Rican coffee crops have shown that yields are twenty percent greater within one kilometer of forest remnants. Canadian canola farmers show increased yields by leaving thirty percent of their cropland wild. It’s all about pollination.

Fortunately for us, insects are quick to recolonize formerly dead areas. Hedgerows, windbreaks, wetlands, woodlots – the particulars of restoration agriculture are easy and already known. It’s the big picture that’s harder to shift, from the extractive industrial petrochemical model to the biodiverse ecosystem model. Honeybees have upped the ante, giving us all the motivation we need to change – do we want to continue to eat?


The material appearing here is copyright Terrain magazine, which is published by the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California (510-548-2235). The material is to be circulated for educational purposes only, and is not to be reprinted in any publication, or distributed for commercial purposes, including copying for sale, without the permission of the editor of Terrain.

(c) 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Three Million Homes?

2007/11/28 1 comment

>Yes, I am sorry to say, we need them.

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (November 26 2007)

It sounds preposterous: three million new homes in England alone by 2020. My instinct is to fight this project. It threatens Britain’s countryside, the character of our towns, our water supplies and carbon targets. Today the Housing and Regeneration Bill, which will help to implement this building programme, has its second reading in the House of Commons {1}. Where should we stand?

Is the housing crisis as acute as some people have claimed? Or has it been whipped up by the House Builders’ Federation, hoping to get their claws into the countryside? To find out whether these homes are really needed, I asked the charity Shelter to take me to meet some of the people it works with in London. I had no idea. I simply had no idea.

Wendy Castle moved into her flat in the Trellick Tower in west London when her eldest child was a baby. He’s now sixteen, and she has three others between thirteen and two. But her flat has only two bedrooms. She sleeps in one of them with her two youngest children. The room is completely filled by beds. On one side they are jammed against the window, which no longer shuts properly. On the other they are pressed against the heater, which can’t be used because of the fire risk. Her two oldest boys share an even smaller room.

She keeps her flat in a state of Japanese minimalism, but in the tiny living room the children were sitting on each other’s laps to watch the television. Like all the women I met that day, Wendy – tough as she has become – cried when she told me how this crowding was affecting her children. Her oldest boy is falling behind at school because “he physically does not have space to do his homework. He can’t do anything till the other kids go to bed.”

But the real shock came when she explained why she was stuck. Kensington and Chelsea, like several London boroughs, operates a points system, reflecting people’s level of deprivation {2}. Every Monday morning it posts up the flats available for social tenants (those who pay less than the market rate). People with enough points can bid for them. Wendy has forty. She has been able to bid on only one occasion. Though her family is officially “severely overcrowded”, she came 87th out of 92. Eighty-six households, bidding for the same flat, were deemed to be in greater need than hers. “I’ve tried everything. But when I ring them they say ‘I don’t know why you bother – you ain’t got the points'”.

In a block across the road from the tower I visited Aisha and Abdul Omarzaiy. They have 280 points, but they have also been told they are wasting their time. Aisha and Abdul received asylum from Afghanistan in 1992. They were given this flat five months after they arrived and promised that after six months they’d be moved to a bigger place. They now have four children between nineteen and two, in a tiny two-bedroomed flat. (Remember this, next time someone claims that people granted asylum get priority.) {3} The oldest boy and girl share a room, a desk and a homework rota. The youngest girl sleeps in bed with her mother. Abdul and the ten year-old sleep on the living room floor. The nineteen year-old has dyslexia and needs peace to concentrate: he is now re-sitting his A-levels for the second time. He can’t bring friends home, as there is nowhere for them to speak privately, and he’s embarrassed about sharing a room with his sister. Like Wendy, Aisha keeps the flat neat and sparse. But prison cells are more spacious.

Now suffering from severe depression, Aisha has lobbied the council and written to her MP. “When I had three children they told me I’d be moved straight away if had another one. I didn’t want another one. But after seven years the fourth came along. They still won’t move us.” The council did offer a solution: to put the oldest boy in a hostel. “They told us straight”, Abdul said. “They don’t have big properties. One comes in once a year and they give it to the highest priority.”

Kensington and Chelsea, as the diligent ward councillor Emma Dent Coad told me, has a poor record on social housing: a kind of economic cleansing seems to be taking place {4}. But there are similar backlogs all over London. Shelter took me to meet Jacqueline Pennant, who lives with her children in a tiny maisonette in south Wandsworth. She has osteoarthritis and a hairline fracture in the spine, a prolapsed disc and sciatica in both legs. She should be confined to a wheelchair, but it won’t fit in the house. She dragged herself from one piece of furniture to the next, then up the narrow stairs, clutching at the bannisters, her face gnarled up in pain. I saw this in Britain, in November 2007.

Jacqueline and her three children have been in this two-bedroomed house for thirteen years. In 1996, she thought she was about to be moved and packed her stuff into boxes. Eleven years later they are still shutting out the light as she waits like Miss Haversham for the date that never comes. Her oldest boy has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and finds the crowding unbearable. The middle one is routinely hospitalised with asthma, exacerbated by sleeping in a tiny slot between his mother’s bed and the wall. In the kitchen you can touch both walls with your palms. “If I can’t use my wheelchair I don’t have a life”, Jacqueline told me. “The strain on my back has made my problems a lot worse. I’m so depressed and frustrated”.

This is a small sample, but it’s indicative of a quiet social catastrophe. Over half a million households are officially overcrowded {5}, 85,000 are in temporary accomodation {6}, 1.6 million are on the social housing waiting list {7}. Even before you consider the backlog, the newly-arising need for homes is projected to run at some 220,000 a year {8}. Shelter’s surveys tell the same story over and over: children struggling with their schoolwork, parents crushed by depression and stress, families living in conditions familiar to Dickens and Engels.

Part of this crisis arises from the Labour government’s shocking failure to build social homes. Though she was the first to allow council houses to be sold, so undermining long-term provision, during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure social homes were built at an average rate of 46,600 a year {9}. Under Blair, it fell to 17,300 {10}, while almost half a million council houses were sold off, at an average rate of 48,300 a year {11}. In this respect at least, new Labour has been as Thatcherite as Thatcher.

It is true that much more could be done to mobilise empty houses {12}, help elderly people to move into smaller flats and stamp out Britain’s ugliest inequality: second homes {13}. It is disappointing to see how little of this there is in the bill. But even if all such measures were used, they would release perhaps half a million homes. I find myself, to my intense discomfort, supporting the preposterous housing target. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about where and how these homes are built. But – though it hooks in my green guts to admit it – built they must be.



2. This system is called “Choice-Based Lettings”.

3. The claim that people from ethnic minorities get preference is also false. The government points out that “Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) households are disproportionately found in overcrowded households. As the chart below shows, in London, nearly thirty per cent of children in BME households and over ten per cent of children in white households live in overcrowded conditions”. Department for Communities and Local Government, July 2007. Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable, page 58.

4. She cites government figures showing that only 27% of new homes built in Kensington and Chelsea are affordable {social or low cost market homes}. In Hammersmith and Fulham, the best-performing borough, the proportion is 82%.

5. 526,000 in 2005-6. Department for Communities and Local Government, July 2007. Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable, page 73.

6. 84,900 in Quarter 2, 2007. Shelter, October 2007. Shelter’s response to the CLG Green Paper – Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable, page 12.

7. Department for Communities and Local Government, July 2007. Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable, page 20.

8. ibid, page 17.

9. DCLG, August 2007. Table 244. Housebuilding: permanent dwellings completed, by tenure, England, historical calendar year series.

10. ibid.

11. The annual figures can be seen here: DCLG and Office of National Statistics, December 2006. Housing Statistics 2006. Table 10.1, page 128.

12. Using government figures, Shelter says there were 676,000 empty properties in England in 2006.

13. There are 260,000 in England, according to DCLG, 2006. Housing Statistics Summary, Number 26. Survey of English Housing Provisional Results: 2005/06, page 25.

Copyright © 2006

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Adaptive Responses to Peak Oil

2007/11/27 2 comments

>by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (November 21 2007)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

One of the occupational hazards of writing a blog on the future of industrial civilization, I’ve discovered, is the occasional incoming missive from somebody with a plan to save the world. My inbox fielded another of those the other day. As worldsaving plans go, this one is relatively modest, and by no means entirely misguided.

My correspondent hopes to convince the American people, or at least some portion thereof, to resettle in largely self-sufficient villages of 5000 to 10,000 people, compact enough that nobody will need to own or use a car. Each village owns enough land around it to feed its population, using edible forest crops and the like as the basis for subsistence. There’s a good deal more; you can find the rest of the details on the website my correspondent recommended:

Taken in the abstract, this is a great plan, and I suspect that a fair number of my readers would be as pleased as I would to move into such a village. As usual, though, the devil is in the details, and it’s as ugly a devil as ever graced a medieval morality play. Like those theatrical devils, though, this one has his uses. A close look at why my correspondent’s plan won’t save civilization from peak oil makes a good introduction to a theme that will be central to most of the next year or so of Archdruid Report posts – the question of how to craft an adaptive response to the coming of the deindustrial age.

It’s a rich word, “adaptive”. In the jargon of evolutionary biology, it refers to anything that allows an organism to respond effectively to the demands of its environment. When the environment is stable, what makes an organism adaptive stays pretty much the same from generation to generation. When the environment changes, though, what’s adaptive can change as well, sometimes radically; genetic variations that would have been problematic under the old conditions become advantages under the new; if the shift is large enough, a new species emerges. This points up the other, dictionary definition of the word – according to my Webster’s Ninth, “showing or having a capacity for or tendency toward adaptation”.

Both these meanings have crucial relevance to the work ahead of us as industrial society skids down the far side of Hubbert’s peak. On the one hand, it’s crucial to find ways of living that are adaptive in the ecological sense – that is, well suited to the new reality of a world of scarce energy and hard environmental limits. At the same time, we won’t simply be landing plump in that new reality overnight, nor do we know in advance exactly what that new reality will look like, so it’s just as crucial to find ways of living that are adaptive in the dictionary sense – that is, capable of adapting to the unpredictable changes of a world in transition.

The problem with my correspondent’s plan is that it may be adaptive in one sense, but it’s not adaptive at all in the other. It seems quite likely that a network of largely independent towns with populations in the 5000 to 10,000 range might be well adapted to the human and natural environments of a deindustrialized world, though that’s a guess at this stage of the process. It’s the process of getting there that’s the difficulty.

Let’s look at the numbers for a moment. Assume a population of 8000 and an average of four persons per family, and you need 2000 new homes for the community. We’ll assume that these homes are cheaper than the median US home – say, $250,000 apiece on average. That gives you a startup cost of $500 million. Add to that the cost of community infrastructure – everything from water and electricity to a school, a library, and the like – not to mention the farmland surrounding the village, and you’ve roughly doubled your price tag to $1 billion.

Even if half your residents own their own homes now and can pay for their new housing out of their equity – not a likely situation in the midst of today’s housing crash and credit crunch – and all the residents put in a great deal of sweat equity in the form of unpaid labor building the village, it’s still going to cost a great deal. If you had 2000 families committed enough to the project to risk their financial future on it, it might nonetheless be possible to make it happen. Still, that’s a huge risk, and it’s made even larger by the fact that the new village is going to have to provide jobs for all its adult residents – part of the point of the exercise is that nobody owns a car, remember, so commuting to the nearest city is out.

Nor can the village’s inhabitants count on being magically transported to a deindustrial world, where they can simply harvest their edible forest crops and barter skills among themselves. For many years to come, they will have bills to pay – not least the costs incurred in setting up the village – and national, state, and local taxes as well. Will the new village be able to provide its residents jobs that will insure their financial survival? Many small towns in the same population range are failing to do that right now. Behind the attractive image of a self-sufficient village in the countryside, in other words, lies the hard reality of a $1 billion gamble for survival against serious economic odds.

That $1 billion gamble, furthermore, would at best only take 8000 people out of the automobile economy – few enough that statistical noise will cover any impact they might have on the larger picture. Imagine a program to take ten percent of the US population out of the automobile economy instead; that’s the sort of scale such a program would need in order to have any measurable effect on the fate of industrial society. The price tag there would be around $3.8 trillion in direct costs, plus the huge indirect costs involved in abandoning or relocating ten percent of the country’s existing housing stock, residential and community infrastructure, and so on. It would take years, and possibly generations, for the savings in petroleum costs to make up for the huge initial outlay, and if the program turned out not to work – if, for whatever reason, the world on the far side of Hubbert’s peak turned out not to be suited to villages of the sort my correspondent envisions – all that outlay would have been wasted.

Now my correspondent’s plan is far from the most extreme example of this kind of unadaptive thinking. The poster children here are the dwindling tribe of technology fans who believe that fusion power will save us if we only commit enough money to research. It’s been well over half a century since the first attempts to make a viable fusion reactor got under way, and the only working example in the solar system is still 93,000,000 miles away from Earth, rising in the eastern skies every morning as it turns hydrogen into helium at its own unhurried pace. We have absolutely no certainty that another trillion dollars of investment will get us any closer to commercially viable fusion power, and if the gamble fails, industrial society is left twisting in the wind with a great deal of empty space beneath its feet.

The problem shared by these, and so many other proposed responses to the predicament of industrial society, is that they aren’t adaptive in the second, dictionary sense. They bet the farm on a single strategy, and if that fails, there is no plan B. Such plans look good on paper, but that’s usually as far as they go, because the factors in the human and natural environment that would make them possible simply aren’t there. For some forty years now, for instance, people have been talking about village communities like the ones my correspondent described. Very few have even been started, fewer have been built, and the ones that have become viable communities can be counted on the fingers of one foot.

What sort of response to the emerging crisis of the industrial world would count as adaptive? We’ll be talking about that for quite a number of posts to come, but a few suggestions might be worth making at this point.

First, an adaptive response is scalable – that is, it can be started and tested on a very small scale, with a minimal investment of resources, and then expanded from there if it proves to work. A fusion reactor is not scalable; you either have one, after trillions of dollars of further investment, or you don’t. My correspondent’s village proposal is a good deal more scalable than this, but even so it’s impossible to give it a try without at least a few hundred families and quite a bit of money. What we need, by contrast, are responses that can start out with individuals committing only the money, resources and time they can easily spare.

Second, an adaptive response is modular – that is, it can be broken down into distinct elements, each of which functions on its own without needing the involvement of all the other parts. That allows something that doesn’t work well to be swapped out without disrupting the rest of the system; it also allows elements suited to one stage of the deindustrializing process to be replaced with something else when that stage gives way to another. Think of the difference between a machine and a toolkit. A machine either does the job or it doesn’t, and if the job changes, you usually have to replace the entire tool. If you have a toolkit, by contrast, the jobs that can’t be done with one tool can usually be done with another.

Third, an adaptive response is open – that is, it can be combined freely with other approaches to the challenges of the future and the enduring predicaments of human existence. None of us can know in advance what belief systems, socioeconomic arrangements, and lifestyle choices will turn out to be most adaptive at each stage of the decline of industrial society. Locking a response into one particular set of approaches limits its usefulness, and could lead people in the future to jettison valuable options because they have become too thoroughly entangled with a dysfunctional economic system or a discredited ideology.

These characteristics look back toward some of the issues already discussed in this blog, but they also open unfamiliar doors. As we peer through those doors in the weeks and months to come, it might be possible to glimpse something of what adaptive responses to the predicament of the industrial world might look like.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized

>Either / Or?

>Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (November 26 2007)

The great debate among those of us on the Economy Deathwatch seems to be whether the debacle we observe around us will resolve as a crash or a slow-motion financial train wreck. It seems to me that at every layer of the system, we’re susceptible to both – in tradable paper, institutional legitimacy, individual solvency, productive activity, real employment, “consumer” behavior, and energy resources. Some things are crashing as I write.

The dollar is losing about a cent every three weeks against other currencies. A penny doesn’t seem like much, but keep that pace up for another year and the world’s “reserve currency” becomes the world’s reserve toilet paper. Oil prices are poised to enter the triple-digit realm, the psychological effect of which may be jarring to 200 million not-so-happy motorists. The value of chipboard- and- vinyl houses is tanking beyond question. Of course, the government’s consumer price inflation figures and employment numbers are dismissed broadly as lacking credence. But anybody who has bought a bag of onions and a jar of jam lately knows that things are way up in the supermarket aisles, and so many illegal Mexican migrants were employed in the Sunbelt housing boom, that their absence in the bust won’t register on any chart.

It’s hard to describe what constitutes the bulk of the stuff moving through the world’s financial markets for the simple reason that it was purposely-designed to be so abstruse and provisional that traders would be too intimidated to ask what it represents – and the growing terrified suspicion is that it’s mostly worthless. By this I refer to the global freak show of derivatives, concocted “plays” on hypothetical “positions”, credit default swaps, arbitrages in imagined “differentials”, nifty equations, hedges, promises, algorithms executed by robots, and “off-book” wishes chartered in the Cayman Islands. Probably all of them, in one way or another, are just scams, since they are unaffiliated with productive activity.

At a more fundamental level, these mutant “investments” were derived from a very tangible trade in loans and mortgages made to flesh-and-blood chumps, but even those are only the last in a long spiral of serial “bubbles”, or market frenzies based on unreal expectations. And this leads into the very real realm of poor choices, fiscal and fiduciary irresponsibility, deliberately deceptive policy, criminal malfeasance, and the broad abandonment of standards in acceptable behavior by people in authority. A lot of observers attribute this to the Gordon Gecko ethos – the discovery back in the 1980s that “greed is good”, which was meant to trump a previous ethos that life is tragic.

Anyway, the trade in mutant investment entities appears to be collapsing now as their worthlessness in market terms (as opposed to theoretical terms) becomes manifest. The major holders of this dreck are losing the ability to conceal their losses, but suspicion now reigns that the losses are far greater than even the massive multiple billions reported so far by the likes of Merrill Lynch, Citicorp, and others. I suppose that what we’ve been seeing lately is a desperate attempt to hold things together just long enough to cut those Christmas bonus checks so that when the pink slips do finally fly in 2008, at least some Big Boyz will walk away with enough cash to cover a hacienda in Uruguay and the salaries of a half-dozen private security goons to guard it.

But I must say, at the risk once again of sounding extreme, that the structural and systemic sickness in the finance realm is now so severe that it is hard to imagine we will get through the month of December without some major trauma in the markets. In fact, I’d go so far as to predict a thousand-point drop (or more) in the Dow just in this week after Thanksgiving. Real wealth “out there” is evaporating like popsicles dropped on the floor of Hell’s fifth circle. It is coming out of the system whether the Big Boyz or anybody else likes it or not, and its absence will assert itself.

At the risk of sounding even more extreme, I would be hard put to believe any reports that “consumer” spending in the days following Thanksgiving will match the hopes and wishes of economic officialdom. My own hunch is that average Americans are so maxed out on debt that they don’t know whether to shit or go blind. Perhaps lot of them are willing to take a last step into fatal insolvency in order to put a plasma TV screen under the Christmas tree and appear as heroes to their families. If that’s the case, it would only imply a greater bloodbath in credit card default thundering through the system in February and March, which would only deepen the carnage in collateralized debt instruments further up the food chain.

That stuff probably has a long way to unwind, even as the “train” of losses hits the immovable obstacle of reality and the “boxcars” of consequence fly off the rails. The slow-motion train wreck could sweep away an awful lot of familiar things in its path – banks, companies, government-sponsored enterprises, whole industries, whole economies, nations, up to and including the prospects for civilized existence, if severe hardship leads to war, which it often does.

To some extent, the speed and severity of the financial train wreck will occur in a mutually reinforcing relation to what happens in the oil markets. The rise in price is only the mildest symptom of growing instability for the system that allocates the world’s most critical resource. Even in the face of “demand destruction”, weird changes are occurring in the way that the oil producers do business. The decline in export rates and the new spirit of “oil nationalism” will take center stage now, even if the US economy seizes up. These phenomena will represent a new cycle in world affairs: the global contest for remaining fossil fuel resources.

Sooner rather than later, the next symptom will appear: spot shortages around the US and hoarding behavior. This is what will finally wake the American public out of its long sleepwalk (and Matthew Simmons said this first, by the way) – when the lines form at the gas stations and the tempers flare and the handguns come out of the glove compartments.

In the financial markets and the economies of nations, it’s not a case of either / or. It’s a matter of either / and.

Bill Totten

Categories: Uncategorized