Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Avoiding Overshoot Means Weaning Ourselves Off Oil

In 1957 twenty-nine reindeer were introduced to St. Matthew Island, a small island in the Bering Sea that had never seen reindeer or caribou before. Six years later there were 6000 reindeer. But three years later, in 1966, there were only 42 reindeer left. What happened? 6000 reindeer were too many for such a small island. In the absence of natural predators they grew to a huge population and damaged the habitat so severely that they overshot the island's carrying capacity. Consequently the island was only able to support a small remnant of the reindeer.

The development of agriculture, thousands of years ago, enlarged the carrying capacity of land for humans. Saving and planting seeds meant that early farming societies were able to support larger populations than the hunting and gathering societies that predated agriculture. In his book, Overshoot, William Catton Jr. argues that when technology began to be powered by fossil fuels our relationship to Earth's carrying capacity changed dramatically for the worse.

By developing machines that liberate the energy locked up in fossil fuels we have supported a vastly expanded human population. Our global population is about 6 billion people and still growing. The problem is that instead of enlarging the Earth's carrying capacity, the use of fossil fuels has diminished it by giving us the ability to cut down forests, overfish the oceans, eliminate bio-diversity, and cause global warming, all at an accelerating rate. Thus, our global civilization has run out of unspoiled habitats to exploit. In the past, when civilizations ran out of room people migrated elsewhere. But now, there is no elsewhere. .

Catton draws an analogy between our dependence on fossil fuels, which originated from dead plants, hence the name "fossil fuels" with what he calls "detritus ecosystems". Detritus is the accumulation of dead organic matter. Bloom and crash cycles such as the algae blooms in lakes and seas depend upon exhaustible accumulations of dead organic matter for their sustenance. These algae blooms collapse and die off after all the seasonal detritus is used up.

"Detritus ecosystems flourish and collapse because they lack the life-sustaining biogeochemical circularity of other kinds of ecosystems." Our global industrial civilization is doing the same thing. By using up fossil fuels, a non-renewable source of energy we have managed to exponentially increase our population over a period of several hundred years. But our society is precariously dependent on dwindling non-renewable sources of energy to feed, clothe and house everyone. If we don't retool our economies soon, when we run out of oil the vast majority of people will starve to death.

Now that the price of oil has increased substantially, governments and oil companies are quickly moving into more unconventional sources, such as tar sands and shale deposits. Doing this will only accelerate environmental breakdown and global warming. It takes three times as much energy to extract and refine oil from the tar sands as it does to extract and refine crude oil. That means that the more we depend on the tar sands, the faster we use up accessible fossil fuels. The Alberta Tar Sands is already using enough natural gas to heat a quarter of Canada's homes. Not only that, but the process of extracting oil from tar sands is accelerating the growth in carbon dioxide emissions which is linked to global warming. The Alberta Tar Sands is now the largest industrial project on the planet, devouring millions of acres of boreal forest, creating huge man made toxic lakes and emitting almost a third of the total carbon dioxide emissions for all of Canada.

A carbon tax or a cap and trade system, eliminating subsidies to the oil and gas industries, and subsidizing public transit and renewable energy technology would preserve our market system and encourage a greener renewable economy.It would help make us more resilient in the face of peak oil.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

It's the Vice President, Stupid!

The office of Vice President is a kind of strange animal in the United States. Many Vice Presidents have been forgettable and inconsequential. After all, it's the President who is “The Decider”. But every once in a while a president dies in office and the Vice President becomes the President. That is how Lyndon B. Johnson and Harry Truman became Presidents. And as the case with George Bush, the Elder and many others, the office of Vice President can serve as a springboard in a new Presidential election.

In the last twenty years the choice of Vice President has had a huge impact. Bill Clinton picked Al Gore to be his running mate in 1992. Gore lost the 2000 Presidential election to George Bush, the Younger – a ridiculously close election that was decided by the Elder Bush's buddies in the U. S. Supreme court. Gore went on to become a far more influential and respected leader than the sitting President,Bush, by tirelessly raising public awareness about global warming – winning a Nobel Prize in the process.

Bush the Younger, had Dick Cheney, a cabinet member in several previous Republican administrations and the former CEO of Haliberton, choose himself as his running mate. As a Vice President, Cheney has made his mark in U.S. history by promoting torture, taking away the rights of prisoners of war, deceiving the American people about the existence of nuclear weapons in Iraq and merging official U.S. economic and military policy with that of American oil companies.

Cheney is famous for saying that he had no intentions of running for President after Bush's term ended. We now know he didn't have to because he was pulling the strings behind George W. Bush, “The Decider” all along.

The choice of a Vice Presidential running mate says a lot about the person running for President. Bush the Elder chose an intellectual light weight named Dan Quayle, who's most famous for misspelling “potato” and criticizing a TV sitcom because it's main character had a baby out of wedlock. Richard Nixon, chose Spiro Agnew, A nasty person with an attitude who ended up getting indicted for corruption charges.

As we all know, John McCain's choice for Vice President is Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin. The most interesting thing about her is how McCain's choosing her has energized his campaign. Before he picked her he was trailing Obama in the polls. After he picked her he pulled out ahead.

Compared to Obama, McCain is not a very inspiring speaker and it was difficult for him to attract large crowds. Now with Palin by his side, the crowds and the excitement have intensified. But what does that say about John McCain, that his pick for Vice President outshines his own star?

Before he picked her, Palin, who had been Governor for two years, was a virtual unknown outside of Alaska. Now,Many of us know that she is a hockey mom, she is able to shoot and field dress a moose, she is a Christian Fundamentalist, and, like Dick Cheney, she has no qualms about stepping on people to get what she wants.

She delights the Republican base, but the McCain team has kept her cocooned, away from too many prying reporters. She apparently has no experience, knowledge, or interest in international affairs. This doesn't bother the party faithful, but it should bother everyone else. Unlike John McCain, she doubts that global warming is caused by humans. She believes that Iraq was behind 9/11 and was not aware of the “Bush Doctrine” of preemptive war. Like McCain she seems eager for a war with Russia or Iran.

When McCain ran against Bush the Younger in the 2000 Republican primaries, he called Fundamentalists Jerry Falwell, and Pat Buchanan, “agents of intolerance”. Fundamentalist Leaders, James Dobson and Richard Land, who were previously lacklustre in their support of McCain, are now vowing to help get out the vote for the McCain/Palin ticket. Just before the 2008 Republican convention McCain who wanted senator Joe Lieberman as his running mate, was told by party bosses to pick another choice because Lieberman was too liberal for the Fundamentalist Republican Base. He then picked Palin and launched a campaign as the team of “mavericks” out to reform Washington. As New York Times columnist Frank Rich said in last sunday's paper, it's amazing that Palin,“...a candidate who embodies fear of change can be sold as a “maverick”...”

Since picking Palin, McCain has become more hardline about abortion and backed off from any firm position on dealing with global warming – both positions that sit well with Fundamentalists. As Frank Rich points out, McCain's choice of Palin, against his own preference for Lieberman, and his recent policy shifts toward the fundamentalist base call into question “who has the power in this relationship and who is in charge.”

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How the Economy Caught FIRE

A fire is a chemical oxidation reaction. It's products are heat, light, and carbon dioxide. When a small amount of combustible material, a match, for instance, reaches a threshold temperature, a chain-reaction ensues. The fire feeds on itself and keeps itself going until it runs out of fuel.

Think of debt as a combustible material. When entire classes of debtors default on their loans , as has occurred with the U. S. sub-prime mortgages then banks and mortgage companies that hold large portions of these debts become vulnerable to their own creditors. This can create a chain-reaction of bankruptcies where the value of all debt holdings, even the ones with AAA credit ratings go up in smoke as everyone tries to sell at once. This kind of “deflation” in value doesn't stop burning until it runs out of combustible material unless the government steps in and buys up the bad loans, letting taxpayers foot the bill.

The above scenario is getting played out, more and more frequently, as huge financial behemoths like the hedge fund “Long Term Capital”,Bear Sterns, and now the two mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have had to be successively bailed out by the U.S. Government. These two private companies hold five trillion dollars in home loans, one half of the U. S. Total. This time, it's the biggest and costliest government bailout in U.S. History.

It's as if the government has been busy snuffing the fires without really putting them all out. And for years they have been adding to the amount of combustible material by loosening restrictions on credit and finance, allowing private debt to became a larger and larger proportion of the economy. The United States Government has been supporting the Financial, Insurance and Real Estate industries – the “FIRE” Economy – at the expense of other important sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing. That's the thesis of American pundit, Kevin Phillips, in his recent book Bad Money.

According to Phillips, between 1987 and 2007 debt became America's largest fastest growing business. In that period, credit market debt quadrupled from $11 trillion to $48 trillion. “ The financial services sector...muscled past manufacturing to become the largest sector of the U. S. Economy.” By 2005 financial services made up 20 % of U. S. GDP while manufacturing was only 12%. “Instead of seeking to restore the older manufacturing industries or build the new technological sector, Washington steadily protected and advanced banking and finance.”

During the eighties and nineties U. S. Corporations “downsized their labour force by eliminating five million jobs and shifted production overseas or south of the border, sharply lowering their tax burden. By doing so they were able to triple their profits and increase their value on the stock market eightfold. Shareholders and CEO's benefited but obviously workers did not. That explains why the top 1% have become immensely richer while everyone else's income has stagnated.

Since the 1970's economic growth and social health indicators have diverged from each other. The problem with a large portion of economic growth in the last thirty years is that is too focused on financial markets which is too narrow a base to build a stable economy on. For instance, over the last five years the U.S. Housing sector provided 40% of growth in GDP and that was fuelled by a huge expansion in mortgages. No country can remain a major economic power by increasing the number of houses it builds. The focus on financial markets at the expense of manufacturing, and skilled jobs, Phillips argues, has been endemic to the steep decline of previous European Empires, namely the Spanish, Dutch, and British. “ The Dutch of the 18 th Century polarized into a nation of rentiers in which the wealthy lived off interest, while industry, fishing, and shipping declined.”

In the United States, the Great Depression of the 1930's followed a similar expansion of credit and widening gap between the rich and the poor in the 1920's, but it was reversed by the policies of FDR, leading to a huge increase in the average American standard of living during the 50's and 60's During the 1980's and 90's successive right wing administrations dismantled FDR's regulatory system while keeping interest rates artificially low, leading to excessive credit expansion and the crash and burn eras of the savings and loans fiasco, the Nasdaq tech stock bubble bursting, and most recently the sub-prime mortgage debacle.

Not only does this make the U.S. Economy more and more vulnerable to crashing, it puts the entire globe at risk. The BC lumber industry is dying because of bad mortgages in the United States.

We need to avoid the vicious cycles of deregulation and government bailout, that leads to burning up and wasting our national wealth. Our government can make our economy more self-sufficient by encouraging us to produce real manufactured goods, instead of encouraging us to buy more stuff on credit. That way we'd have more jobs, higher skill levels and economic growth would be benefiting a wider base of population, leading to a more stable economy.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Can We Trust "Trust"

What is trust? Trust is a universal relationship we have with people and situations in the world. Most of the time, we make exchanges with other people without having full knowledge about their intentions. When we “trust” someone it means that we believe in their honesty, benevolence, and competency even though we don't have certain knowledge that they have those qualities.

An important aspect of trust in relationships is delayed reciprocity. We do things for other people without expecting immediate gain from doing so. We trust that eventually our good deeds will get back to us. But we don't really know if and when that will be. This is how society works. Mutual trust is a kind of “social glue” that creates a sense of community and makes it easier for people to work together.

Trust is an essential part of many kinds of relationships – in love, friendship, and companionship, for example. We can relax and feel comfortable with people we trust. When we trust a situation we say “I feel at home”.

The opposite of trust is hostility, hatred, fear, and paranoia. In these cases we do not trust others because we believe that they are either incompetent or they mean us harm. We do not trust strange situations, and we say that we do not feel at home there. Not enough trust leads to social isolation, breakdown and bloodshed.

Ironically this kind of situation can lead us to trust certain people and certain religious doctrines too much. People are attracted to religious cults because of fear and a desire for certainty. In a small group such as a cult a leader can demand and obtain blind obedience from his followers. The followers of Jim Jones committed mass suicide after he told them to drink cool-aid laced with cyanide.

The price we pay for absolute certainty is always too high. Too much trust is wrong because it prevents us from correcting course when we make mistakes. The more you concentrate trust in one leader, in one set of ideas, and in one book of Scriptures, the less trust you have in outsiders and new ideas. It is inevitable that everyone will make mistakes, and that many of our ideas will turn out to be wrong. If we put too much of our trust in particular people, groups, or ideas we will not be open to making corrections when reality contradicts what we thought was true. In extreme cases, people will refuse to hear information that contradicts what they believe and will do anything to suppress the information and attack the messenger. But if we make it impossible to learn from experience we will eventually end up destroying ourselves.

The problem with trust is inherent in all relationships. That which we trust can end up harming us. We trust in our food supply, but sometimes packaged meats that we buy in the grocery store can kill us, as happened recently with meat tainted with Lysteria. We trust that nature will be predictable and benevolent – supplying us with water, sunshine, warm temperatures and good soil for growing crops. But sometimes nature is not benevolent as we witness major earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, and forest fires. We trust in our parents or our minister, or teacher and the vast majority of the time we benefit from this trust. But sometimes our leaders breach our trust and exploit us physically or sexually.

We trust the “system”, but sometimes our political and economic systems let us down – if we are in the midst of a war, or live in a “failed state”, or if we are living through an economic depression, or hyperinflation. When enough bad things happen to us we can lose faith in society, grab a gun and head for the hills. This makes the world an even more dangerous place.

Today our deep trust in human progress has been broken by the prospect of human-induced climate change. Climate effects virtually everything on earth. It determines the temperature, the amount of rainfall, the amount of ice and glaciation, the length and character of the seasons, and even the sea level. It is ultimately what makes a place livable.

This particular breach of trust is too much for some people to handle which is why they've ended up denying global warming. That our industrial civilization is accelerating global warming means that we can no longer trust our technology and economic systems to make the world a better place. It means that we have to get off our butts and help change the direction our society is going before its too late.