September 8, 2010

The Genesis Necropolis


In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and its sequel the focus was on a thing called the “Genesis Device”. It was allegedly to be used to seed barren planets and moons with proliferant life. But clear-sighted skeptics immediately demanded to know: And what if instead of deploying it on a barren planet they deployed it on a planet which already had indigenous life? In that case it would be a weapon of planetary genocide and ecocide. This was of course the correct way to look at it – who could think they wouldn’t use it that way?
That’s what I think of whenever I read a piece like this surveying the ongoing and proposed techno-assaults* on our food, our biology in general, and the earthly ecology itself.
[*In the past I’ve gotten into arguments over whether or not fossil fuel-driven technology, that is all modern technology, is inherently totalitarian, or has just been hijacked by corporatism. I no longer see that as a worthwhile argument. Since corporations themselves are totalitarian in intent and monopolize all technology which requires heavy capitalization, it’s redundant to argue about the intrinsic nature of the technology. Anything inherent to it which is malign or can be turned to malign purposes is being systematically manipulated in that way by the elites. That’s all that matters, and all concerns about technology in itself can be subsumed in the anti-corporate struggle.
And Peak Oil shall render it all moot anyway, since the fossil fuel foundation shall wither away.]  
The plan, as far as is possible, is to exterminate nature and replace it with artificially engineered pseudo-life, to respond to climate change not by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions but with monumental geoengineering schemes which will allegedly remove the carbon from the environment using extremely violent means – seeding the oceans with iron, seeding the air with sulfur (the same sulfur we which returns as acid rain and which we already worked so hard to get out of the air before). All this is to be built atop the already tottering tower of pollution. Atop the drunkenly swaying tower of soil-mining which pumps the already-dead soil full of artificial gas-based fertilizer and deploys massive amounts of oil- and gas-based pesticides and herbicides against the ever-more resistant pests and weeds (we can call them artificially engineered as well; indeed the arms race is part of the business plan of the likes of Monsanto), in order to grow genetically engineered pseudo-crops. We should think of a dope fiend who needs uppers to get up in the morning and to stagger through his day, downers to pass out at night, and some kind of euphoric throughout his waking time in order to feel anything but emptiness and despair. That’s our corporate “civilization” today. (This makes a similar point regarding the culture itself.) All this is being done for the sake of profit and elite power. That’s the kind of takeover we face from this alienation of nature. 
The goal is to drive out nature itself and replace it with a corporatized (and of course patented) pseudo-flora and fauna. 
Similarly the climate change issue has been completely hijacked and the system threatens to use it as a wedge, to enforce corporatism via cap-and-trade and geoengineering.
(Years ago I decided man wasn’t going to mitigate and gave up on climate change, but I wished the activists godspeed. Today I see how they were corporate scammers, or among the scammed, but at any rate are part of a hijacked cause. The predatory bills like Warner-Lieberman or last years ACES, with their assaults on existing authority and their massive corporate welfare, exemptions, and entrenchments, prove that. Most of all, the goal was to help Wall Street extract new rents and blow up a new bubble.
It looks like a possible internecine battle among the rackets, if Wall Street ever decides to really push for this with whatever allies it musters, vs. the more sclerotic rackets who can’t adapt.)
This is a core manifestation of the way the corporations want to secede society (using that as a transitive verb, “society” is the object), drive it out, while maintaining the state as a goon and of course holding physical power over the land and resources. This criminal (dis)order is to be enforced by the drained undead zombie state even though, with society and the constitution (sovereignty themselves) having been seceded out, this power has no legitimacy, no sovereignty.
The same is true of health bill. It wants to physically drive us out of the hospitals and doctors offices, out of the emergency room, simply out of the health care system, even as it sticks us up for an “insurance mandate”. Again, society is to be forcibly dissolved, with nothing left but naked force.
The same for the food bill, which will privilege these same techno-totalitarian food rackets while forcibly seceding us from our own food chain. The goal is to isolate us from nature and the earth itself. Taking the existing phenomena to their logical end, we’d be confined to our work space and given only enough food to keep us working for so long as we’re serviceable.
Everything I said here about the food system, its oil-driven unsustainability and how the corporatized technological deployment threatens the environment, our lives and health, and our very freedom, is a call to arms for us to grow, process and distribute our own food. This is the golden road to redeeming our country and ourselves. But in order to do that we’ll have to wage many fights. The food bill looms as a planned assault on our food freedom. There other plans for assaults like the criminalization of seeds. And the general assault of the elites’ “genesis” device, really a death machine, looms over it all. We’re entering the final conflict between freedom and slavery. 
Since I opened with GMOs I’ll close on a hopeful note. We’re seeing the rise of the direct action tactic of destroying GMO fields. This is a promising development, and we should take the logic further. We have a right to act in self defense against those who would use any political policy or technology for their own profit and our enslavement.

September 8, 2009

Monuments and Collapse (Scientism 4)

Some weeks back the NYT Week in Review section ran a good piece on the travails of the CERN Large Hadron Collider. While the media was all over how the 15 year, $9 billion project has been plagued by explosions and magnets on strike, and how it just maybe might be able to start running on 50% power by next year, this was the only piece I saw which delved into the eschatological implications.
The article, by physicist James Glanz, takes its cue from a recent trip to Belize, where as a tourist he visited the ancient Mayan pyramid at Xunantunich. Pondering how the Maya abruptly abandoned this and other monumental sites after spending centuries building them, and contemplating the boondoggle that is CERN, he was driven to the conclusion that “the similarities between the two projects were clear-cut.”
The collapse of the Maya is evidently a mystery to mainstreamers and academics, but not to Glanz’s local guide Albert: they didn’t rotate their crops, and therefore “there was no food”. It’s also not much of a mystery to Peak Oilers who are aware of the agricultural practices of the Maya, how their equivalent of industrial ag led to depleted soil and disastrous erosion. Meanwhile climate change experts explain how the rainfall of that region depends upon a multi-century cycle of the rains falling mostly over the isthmus or further south over the South American landmass. The Maya reached their peak during a favorable rain cycle of hundreds of years; when the rains moved back south, that was the death blow for their already soil-destroying agricultural model.
To compare a recent event, while many people are familiar with how Cuba agriculturally grappled with being cut off from the Soviet oil subsidy, not as many talk about the parallel and opposite experience of North Korea. Cut off from the fossil fuels which powered its particularly fossil-intensive version of monoculture, the North tried to double down, expanding production onto ever more marginal land: hillsides and so on.
Sound familiar from what America’s corn ethanol dementia has been wreaking?
The results were predictable: an erosion disaster which denuded the hills and dumped their debris on what little decent valley soil was left. Who knows how many millions starved in the ensuing famine?
There’s strong evidence that the Maya were also driven to deforest their hillsides to try to cultivate them, with similar results.
In this calamity, as their monumental agriculture failed, that they had to abandon their monumental architecture as well, like the pyramid at Xunantunich, is not surprising. Nor is it a surprise that they lost faith in the religion to which it was built as a shrine.
Similarly, today people are coming to sense that the promises of the progress religion will not be kept. As people lose faith in this creed, they will lose enthusiasm for investment in the monumental shrines of this religion – things like the CERN particle collider, or space travel. That these astronomical things are astronomically expensive, and that the promised results, the SROI (science return on investment) sound ever more gossamer and would take generations to achieve where once great results could be achieved in mere years (and at much less expense), at a time when the world sinks into global depression in direct defiance of the promises of the faith, and as a direct result of the lies of the preachers of that faith, will only render them all the more practically impossible and morally obscene.
One can picture the dismay of the Mayan priests as the people drained away. What can have happened to bring this crisis to our faith? And then many of them must have understood perfectly. Many must have also been plantation owners, or were the hired cadres of the latifundia propagating the age old pious fraud.
So today we see the same bemusement among the priests of scientism. Glanz describes the angst among the physicists over the plight at CERN. He even goes so far as to offer the moral protest that “many other scientists ardently believe that it would be an injustice if the collider were threatened by delays that are miniscule in comparison to the lifetime of the cosmos” (emphasis added).
So in the same way a rich teenager may bewail the cruelty of the world if her parents refuse to spend $50K on her Sweet 16 party instead of only 20, so these scientists are morally entitled to extract infinite billions from the beleaguered workers of the world, giving nothing in return, and are being oppressed if they are denied their entitlement. Glad we got that straight.
This has always been the attitude of the true believers among priesthoods, and we’re not going to see this lobby go away anytime soon if it can also offer the prospect of corporatist profit.
(In that connection, we’re seeing an old front newly opening up again: new prospects for geoengineering are being touted by studies and in the media as the upcoming Copenhagen conference gets a lot of attention, and as people come to realize that domestic legislative efforts like Waxman-Markey are always going to be insufficient to deal with the climate crisis, and as people start to think that maybe they don’t really want to pay to deal with it. This is the happy hunting ground for disaster capitalism, and geoengineering is a classic disaster opportunity.
Of course the people who didn’t want to pay directly through slightly higher energy costs in the short-term, while they’d end up saving money in the longer term, will end up indirectly paying far more for geoengineered corporatism. That in turn will only end up failing to solve the climate disaster while it adds unimaginable new environmental calamities, and how much are those going to cost?
But scientism will get a new playground for awhile.)
As they scratch their heads over the conundrum, academics don’t want to face the truths of Peak Oil, resource depletion, the collapse of exponential debt, so they may focus on ideology and spirit as if they exist in a vacuum. Thus Glanz quotes anthropologist Richard Leventhal to the effect that physical explanations for the Mayan collapse are “beside the point”. Rather, “these multigenerational projects are based upon a strong and ongoing belief system in how the world works”. So it all depends on faith, and faith simply stands or falls on its own, like faith in the stock market. The physical unsustainability of that faith is meaningless.
In truth we know that the spirit, while it can help inspire, can go only so far as the flesh is able. Ideology and its collapse track the sustainability and collapse of the resource base. Explanations which focus only on the spirit are always incomplete at best.
If we look at the Decline and Fall of Rome, we see how insufficient were the predominantly spiritual and character explanations of commentators like Vegetius and Gibbon, how these are really supplements to resource and complexity analyses like that of Joseph Tainter.   
This is of course an extremity of absurdity, this revival of the collapse of pure spirit, but they’re driven to it by the necessity to deny resource depletion and what it is dictating. Instead they appeal to a kind of patriotism, the patriotism of science. The success of something like the Hadron Collider or the colonization of Mars depends upon everyone continuing to religiously believe in it, and exercise that belief by socioeconomically enslaving themselves to it.
And if you question, if you doubt, if you dissent, if you scoff, you are subversive, heretical, unpatriotic, anti-American, treasonous, criminal. The rhetoric isn’t at this level yet, but the attitude is coalescing.
In reality, the spiritual/ideological superstructure and the resource base operate in a dialectical interplay which is driven by the base.
If we have:
A. The physical facts – resource depletion and agricultural failure;
B. The spiritual demoralization and loss of faith;
then we can see how:
A leads to B: the rains, the soil, the oil fails – it means the gods failed;
B leads to A: stupidity, short-sightedness, failure to respect, cherish, revere the land – lead to physical destruction and depletion.
We can see the results of the progress religion, growth fundamentalism, and scientism everywhere today. If resource abundance originally seduced humanity into its profligacy and wastefulness, we have long been unquestioning, voluntary fanatics about it, to the point that even as gods fail everywhere, the faith still holds strong, at least on the surface.
Perhaps the first hairline cracks are appearing where it comes to monumental science projects like CERN. Here the version of the progress faith is the so-called Standard Model. This is the particular detail of the “strong and ongoing belief system” for whose future these particle scientists fear.
The failure of faith here would not be lack of “belief” in the Standard Model as such, but in the propriety, the EROI and SROI of investing endless $ billions to carry out arcane experiments to prove or disprove some abstruse mathematical detail, while so many millions lack jobs and go hungry.
In the end faith in the system depends upon faith in the proposition that the great bulk of the wealth of society should go into the pockets of a handful of men, for their personal amusement and private religious ritual, and that somehow, in some Utopia thousands of years form now, it’ll all trickle down, and our distant descendents will honor us as saints, that we submitted as slaves today, that we believed these promises which were eventually redeemed.
That’s the superstition demanded of us.
The article ends with a piece of boosterism from a CERN spokesman: “I sincerely hope that if the human race has managed to survive” as long into the future as we have come since the Maya, “we will have left a big enough imprint on science that people will not have to speculate on what the priesthood of CERN was up to”.
But even right now we can only “speculate”. What are they up to?

September 4, 2009

Tech Monuments as Consumerism and Class War (Scientism 2 of 5)

In post 1 we saw how something like CERN comes about. From the scientistic point of view, society is simply another resource to be mined for its own narrow purposes. In this, it is an extension of modern shallowness and selfishness in general. At the same time it allows science itself to become the prostitute of corporate interests. So it happily works as a slave in the mine it has helped rip open. 
It’s just like the space program. Obscenely expensive toys for overgrown children to play. It’s an extreme version of the high-maintenance hedonist consumer culture. Technicians of physics who want this toy to play with are no different from a suburbanite who just needs a McMansion, a Hummer, a plasma TV.
Do these scientists consider themselves “thinkers” or “artists”? No, they’re just technicians who don’t even produce anything. Any freelance mechanic or carpenter contributes far more social value.
And what would these tinpot Edisons do without the boss man to give them their laboratories and their marching orders? Is it even possible to be a technician without spending one’s life repeatedly bought and sold? All they are is a commodity.
And then we behold an absurd “prestige” project like a particle collider, something which looks like a parody of the Titanic, which itself had made itself farcical before it even sank, what with its absurd rhetoric about being “unsinkable”. If it had been a character in the drama you would know it was going to sink.
Today we are in the age of resource depletion, of Peak Oil. Today all realistic people look at any massive capitalization and think of Ozymandias. CERN, the space program, geoengineering, nuclear power, CCS, Dubai, Las Vegas, Atlanta….these are all one spectrum of hubris. And not even the glorious if fatal Greek pride, but a snivelling, spiritual picayune brat’s pride which seeks to compensate for its puniness and paltriness through big, noisy things. Deep down it’s the same bigger-is-better, flashier-is-better consumerist mindset which got us into this whole mess.
But net entropy declares this is all vanity. We should look at a parking lot full of unsold cars (even a potemkin “market” like cash for clunkers can only go so far), or a high-rise condo with all the units unsold and empty, and then compare a high-tech toy like CERN.
Of course no one really thinks a particle collider or anything that can be learned from it is going to be of any use at all post-Peak Oil. I guess using that money for real scientific investment, say to develop better post-fossil fuel agricultural varieties, isn’t sexy enough for the scienticians.
I fear we cannot afford to waste all this money. Not one cent of it.
I don’t know what kind of science could come of such massive capitalizations which would be beneficial to the non-rich during energy descent.
I’d be willing to bet two things about CERN:
1. It wasn’t funded by private capital. (Costs socialized, including the risk of generating a black hole, however infinitesimal that may be; the guys at Alamogordo thought it theoretically possible the first atom bomb blast would set the atmosphere on fire. At least then there was a war on.)
2. Any benefits will be for the wealthy, any profits private.
As for spending billions to experimentally validate quantum ideas, why? Spiritually, philosophically, aren’t the ideas enough? It’s an insult to the real spirit of science to assume you need billions of dollars for a toy in order to study science. On the contrary, it’s the mark of a creatively sterile technician.
A creative thinker finds all he needs in nature, in the works of the philosophers, in the writings of the mystics, poets, and revolutionaries. Archimedes, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton didn’t need billions worth of technological monstrosities. All they needed was their ideas and some pre-fossil fuel tools. That’s all we need today. (Boscovitch anticipated quantum theory in the 18th century using no special equipment. The idea for black holes also dates to that time.)
The issue becomes especially ridiculous when we consider plummeting net energy and EROEI (energy return on investment). It was Newton who said he was “standing on the shoulders of giants”. And today? We have grasshoppers on the shoulder of the Statue of Liberty, and it costs an astronomical amount to lift them up there.
The “SROI”, science return on investment, is less favorable by now than Peak Oil’s EROI will ever be.
(This provides a good object lesson regarding EROEI and the prospects for tyranny to try to use force to overcome it. All the wealth transfers of corporatism are exercises in not requiring capitalism to earn its keep by actually creating value and generating valid profits. Monumental technology indulgences like the collider or the space program are similar examples of wealth redistribution upward.
So in the same way that ROI is overcome in all these cases through politically enabled embezzlement and theft, they will if they can try to overcome the EROEI ramifications of Peak Oil and resource depletion through direct force: slave labor and repression.)
Even if any of this “investment” actually produced a return, it would go only to the power and wealth structure. If the technology-will-save-us myth ever did come true, it would only be to power elite fortresses while the serfs freeze in the dark.
Do you enjoy the internet? Consider it very useful? In ten years connections probably won’t be available for the non-rich, let alone in libraries.
Of course, it’s possible that things won’t turn out this way. Check out this piece from the Washington Post. The writer is clear on the economic devastation and technological stratification likely to befall us. Yet he’s expecting the power elite, out of some newfound goodness of their hearts never before in evidence, to spread the wealth at their own expense. Suddenly, after trickle down failed everywhere else, every time, it will work this time as simple charity.
Are we going to count upon this?
Do scientism and technology any longer serve man? They do not if they rig up an economy which destroys all meaningful jobs, sets up a totalitarian surveillance system and database, and concentrates all wealth in the hands of a few, who we must then beg to bestow welfare upon the superfluous masses.
Politically, that welfare state can never exist. The rich would never contribute to it. And why would the people be willing to live like that? Free-minded human beings would not be willing.
No, if it were ever possible to beg for welfare from thieves, that would only be because the thief feared the beggar, and that would only be because the beggar was strong enough to be, not a beggar, but an avenger.
These are the inevitable end choices for the technological corporatist state as it enters Peak Oil. Enslavement or revolution.
Technology and capitalism are in the same position. Any good they were going to do they’ve long since done. They now add only delusions, oppression, and waste, and misdirect mankind from truly confronting its problems.
There is no more “innovation”. This economic crisis and Peak Oil prove that once and for all. What we need to innovate is the wisdom to constructively use what we have.
By now it’s obvious, looking at any issue, any problem, what measures could be part of the solution, or could at least help ease the impending suffering, and what just helps build the Tower of Babel higher.
Industrialized civilization will have to devolve regardless of what we do. Every class-war cent we spend on self-indulgent monster toys is not only wasted but a crime against the suffering people of today, and against all the people of the future.
We have no thinkers left, only appendages of machines. The machines themselves produce nothing but oppression. Without the fossil fuel platform they’ll produce only cobwebs.
So much wealth and time wasted……

May 21, 2009


Lately it seems there’s a sense of unreality floating about. At least in the media mirror the crisis is being managed. The people have calmed down. This climate change, at any rate – spasmodic fear and anger, against a backdrop of growing anxiety and tension – seems to have been a false start. Now we hear of how we’ve turned the corner, indicators are up, and that although things will still get worse before they get better, they’re going to get better and soon. “2010” is the talisman. (Of course, in 2008 they said that about 2009, but this time they have real reasons and not just hype and dogma.)
This morning the NYT chirped about how the oil price heading back up means the economy is recovering, and how even with recovering oil prices America this summer is going to be recovering its gasoline consumption and miles driven. Everywhere we see attempts to find that housing starts are resuming. Prognosticators also look to the geographic markets which collapsed ahead of the curve, to try to locate the nascent curve of the next housing bubble. These are the good things, the “green shoots”. They don’t indicate that man is fey, insane, and utterly unable to learn lessons and solve problems short of permanent collapse. They signify the underlying permanency of the fossil fuel, exponential debt civilization.
Of course, the real economic indicators are horrible. After the brief respite of dampened food and fuel prices, these are now resuming their systematic upward march. Meanwhile the recession deepens, and every monthly labor report catalogues the accelerating jobs hemorrhage. “Green shoots”? Only in the pantomime stats. Only in the hall of mirrors. Bank profits were only the shadow cast by asset selloffs, accounting tricks and bailout money laundering. The market rally is built on sand. The stress tests are a charade, and their media reflection a lie.
What is really happening? After the convulsions of the first wave of economic destruction, we are entering the gruel and grind of stagflation. That’s what these food and fuel prices portend.
So far the disaster is not being confronted, and the practices which generated it are not being changed. Not only have the finance criminals not been brought to justice, but they have been rewarded and allowed to continue and intensify their crimes. They even feel emboldened to comport themselves with renewed aggression, arrogance, and contempt. They were allowed to negotiated the stress test results. They still ideologically own the administration. They still rule on Capitol hill. Calls for restored law and regulation have bogged down. The bailouts continue. The financial elite continue to prosper and prey, while their prey, the people and the earth, continue to suffer.
Fire, famine, pestilence, war….We have a world circumscribed by these, and they hem us in ever more tightly. America is now the de facto dictatorship of war. There is no aspect of large-scale policy (which is almost all policy nowadays) which is not conceived and executed so as to further the Bailout War and the Global War on Terror. Both of these in turn are simply wealth redistribution machines. Fire: as in burning the rain forests and peatlands to make way for agrofuel factories. Disease: the swine flu and its successor pandemics arising out of the germ war factories and launchpads known as “factory farms”. Famine: although most famines are man-made, none compare with the one we now face as agrofuels and industrial agriculture monopolize the land, while the biotech corporations achieve seed domination. We face the prospect of a cartel dictating ever higher food prices, while we (the people of the earth) become ever less capable of providing for our own food needs. This will happen even as fossil fuel agriculture becomes intrinsically more expensive. More pressure on food prices. Famine again. And the deforestation and burning of food for fuel shall drive the same climate change whose drought effects are also constraining global agriculture. Fire again. Famine again.
You would think we’d want to change this system; that at the very least we’d act in self-defense vs. this prospect of enslavement. Yet according to the mainstream media the flurry of populist outrage is spent, and serious reform is a dead duck. No one even talks about bank nationalization anymore, to give an example of something intrinsically stupid (the goal must be to permanently downsize and decentralize banks, not restore megabanks to “health”) but which nevertheless sounds like a plausible and constructive policy given the premises of the big structure/”growth” model.
According to the media, after a brief fling with the attitudinizing of revolt, the people have settled back down into their normal sheeple posture, passively waiting to be given the all clear. And the MSM is trying to comply, collaborating with the government’s green shoots PR campaign. That’s the image the media holds up to America as its mirror. 
But perhaps this mirror doesn’t faithfully reflect but actively distorts, trying to force reality into the unreal preferred form. Those who are educating themselves know that these are all lies. Growth is not coming back. Sure, we may have a few spikes of zombie growth in the form of new bubbles. But bubbles are all we’ve had for a long time now, and that’s all we can ever have again, so long as we keep trying to prop up a centralized, cartelized system predicated on infinite oil and infinite debt. We know that this is a lie.
The question is, has this sunk in at all among the populace as a whole? Were the flurries of populism just a frustrated lashing out, or did they indicate an intuition about the fundamental rot?
We’re now in a brief, becalmed interlude between the onset of turbulence and the full rage of the storm. The people will certainly have no choice but to become activized. The only question is whether their energies will be enlisted by increasingly authoritarian processes or even overt fascism, or whether they will become conscious of their real predicament and act to improve their situation rather than tear down the house on top of themselves.
There’s where I hope Peak Oil education can do some good. It’s true that cadres can only accomplish so much. Everything depends upon people’s capacity to become educated, which in the end always means educating yourself.
But where we don’t know what these capacities are, how these historical forces will play out, what is truly possible, the only way to learn anything is to attempt it. I can’t imagine a more fruitful, creative, and yes hopeful way of living in this pivotal and fraught moment of world history than to be aware of it and try in whatever modest way to spread this awareness.  

May 6, 2009

The “Platform”

Filed under: Nietzsche, Peak Oil, Relocalization — Tags: , , , , — Russ @ 8:43 am
Peak Oil means different things to different people. Those who affirm global technological civilization approach it as a mere problem this civilization must and can solve. This dovetails with the green cornucopian approach to carbon emissions. In both cases it’s believed mass conspicuous consumption and intense energy use can and should continue; we’ll just be more “efficient” and eco-friendly about it. Thus they envision some combination of biofuels, PHEVs, CCS, renewable energy, efficiency retrofits, geoengineering, and GMOs which will allow the continuation of the personal car/suburban sprawl/consumerist model for existing. (Though even where they can work out the energy flows and conjure the food production on paper, they have considerable trouble telling us where the oil platform, capital, water, or space will come from for all this.)
For them, Peak Oil does not represent any pivotal historical change, but is more of an obstacle to continued progress, perhaps just a speed bump.
Then there are those of us who are either skeptical about mass civilization itself or have come to believe it is no longer sustainable. For us, Peak Oil signifies the fact, regarded with hope or fear or both, of revolutionary change. It is the physio-economic guarantor of the end of a stage of history, and it is the classical cycling back of history, restored to a more natural course, where not amplified, accelerated, and distorted by the steroids of fossil fuels.
Those of us who experienced this “history on steroids” as having been for the worst, decadent and malign, destructive of earth, mind, and soul, can welcome this break with the near-past and hope for the restoration of a more human path, perhaps more holistic than prior to the fossil fuel blip, if we can bring along the bitter wisdom we should have learned from this crazed detour.
So we can say “Peak Oil” can be the term not just for a physical milestone in a discrete historical cycle, but to encompass the high-flying pinnacle of modernity, where it reached its peaks of both dream and nightmare, where its delusion completely outran its material base, as well as whatever rational base it may ever have had; and where its wave peaked, broke, and fell back upon itself; and where it sought to perpetuate itself but could only cannibalize itself, and where it descended, and where a new relocalized, but spiritually far more mature, civilization superseded it. Those last few items represent a possible future. (I would say the first, grimmer part is likely, the latter bright part is to be hoped for and worked toward.)
This leads to the question, if in philosophical terms fossil-fueled modern civilization, and the (delusional) dream of this civilization, is the existing thesis, and the dream’s nightmare, its spiritual, material and economic bankruptcy, as summed up in the philosophy of Peak Oil, comprise the antithesis, then what synthesis do we hope to achieve? What do we wish to take up and bring along from the ruins of the fossil fuel platform?
The core of Nietzsche’s vision of the modern dilemma and potential is that together religion and science have constructed the intellectual and spiritual platform from which man can achieve true liberation, truly reach “adulthood”, truly become free (including achieving a position above and independent of both religion and the cult of science, technology, “progress”). In that same philosophically fertile 19th century (all the real philosophical advances of modernity came in the 19th century; like in so many other areas, here too the 20th generated mostly gratuitous complexity, picayune specialization, intentional confusion – really the same old rent-seeking over productive activity) Marx and others demonstrated how industrialism and fossil fuels enabled the development of political ideals of liberty and self-actualization (which have unfortunately been degraded into license and entitlement).
So now with Peak Oil we may attempt to meld these visions. We must take wing and attempt to depart from the single platform which comprises the spiritual, political, and fossil-fueled material “platforms” of modernity. Some of these represent an accumulated wisdom we may try to take with us, others were ephemeral crutches we must cast away. But put together it is a place where we can no longer continue running in place.
We now cycle back to a simpler historical existence. Whether we are at the same time transcendent, whether we bring along something of what we should have learned, whether we above all learn to rise above our delusions and superstitions once and for all; or whether it was all for nothing, and energy descent does end up as a nasty, Hobbesian, “Mad Max” affair; or worst of all if it is just a slow deteriorating grind as several Peak Oilers think, if man is simply crushed in a vice for the rest of history, is the question.          

March 29, 2009

Size, Complexity, and Gluttony (2 of 2)

Yesterday in this post I discussed the inherent instability and proneness to systemic failure of the immense, ramified, Rube Goldberg structures which have come to dominate the world, and which threaten to be imposed as the only conceivable solutions to the problems we face.

The result is a Tower of Babel whose every tottering is met with the call, “Build another layer!”, as every layer renders it only more top heavy, more of an inverted pyramid.

Therefore we have a tottering pyramid of systemic debt, on top of which the technocrats want to build another pyramid of geoengineering, GMOs, aggrofuels, and nuclear reactors. This debt-funded technolgical structure will allegedly allow us to continue with economic, automotive, and consumerist business as usual without starving the world’s non-rich or further aggravating the climate crisis.

And on top of this, as the alleged purpose of the Tower being built so high already, everyone is to continue building his own personal debt pyramid of consumer and carbon debt. The technology will provide the carbon debt jubilee, while the consumer debt, even in the face of everything we see happening now, is still religiously assumed to be sustainable.

This is supposed to allow exponential growth to resume, and the high-impact, materially gilded consumer lifestyle is supposed to be so enabled to continue unchanged, and not at the expense of the world’s poor.

I’ll argue elsewhere that none of these three propositions are likely to be realized, and that the first two at any rate are in a zero-sum game against the third. For now I’ll just say I don’t believe it’ll be possible for the West’s automobile-intensive lifestyle or its extreme carbon emissions to continue except at the direct expense of the world’s poor. This will be the subject of future posts.

For now I want to say a few words on the underlying moral assumptions of the consumer economy and lifestyle. The core of this decadence is the will to buy as much as possible of useless material junk whose only purpose seems to be as sort of psychological salve. Nobody could articulate why America “needed” to stupidly gigantize its vehicles and houses, or why it had to accumulate such a plethora of electronics and machines whose new versions added nothing but bells and whistles, but whose planned obsolescence seemed to trigger a kind of anxiety in people who have been less and less able to define themselves in any way but by their material “things” – the sheer quantity, the literal size, the expense, and the hipness factor. That this psychology existed in the first place, and had such need of being salved, bespeaks a deeper spiritual crisis.

The nature of this crisis is that over the post-war decades Americans developed a smugness and sense of entitlement both morally and materially. They became less willing to do real work, but rather felt the world owed them a living on account of their self-evident moral grandeur and evident ability to generate a consumerist utopia which materialists all over the world aspire to to this day.

Since Americans didn’t want to really work but still wanted to “have it all”, the answer was debt. America used the status of the dollar as reserve currency to financialize the global economy (goosed with petrodollar recycling; in this way America’s debt fixation and its oil addiction attained synergy), and on the domestic front the people more and more racked up debt to pay for a lifestyle binge. (Much of this debt exists in the form of integenerational warfare as the baby boomers waged war on their own children and grandchildren. This battlefront still rages today.)

They developed a psychotic sense of entitlement regrading all these things. And commensurate with all this came a refusal to recognize that all this was founded upon cheap, plentiful fossil fuels and the mining of other abundant resources; but that now we were starting to run up against the limits of these resources.

Faced with these limits, refusing to consciously acknowledge them, refusing to recognze the necessity for devolution and relocalization, America instead seeks to step up the building of the Tower of Babel. The red thread that runs through it all is (1) the refusal to end the binge, to recognize the party’s over; (2) the will of the power structure and its mercenary scientific water carriers is to serve this refusal, and seek its own profit, however crazed.

The whole situation is like in Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, where there’s a materially lavish but morbid, necrophiliac party as right outside the door the plague rages. Of course it soon finds its way in.

America went into debt to buy junk it didn’t need which nobody should really want, and which it didn’t deserve anyway. This is why America’s moral character has become so flabby. On account of the temporary plenty provided by rich natural resources, America got an undeserved windfall, and has mostly lived on the interest.

Between this handout from fate and the vulgar frauds of mass pseudo-democracy, America’s character became completely gutted, as both in attitude and (for a while) in reality it developed its religion of entitlement.

Now that the material wave is receding, all that’s left is the bad attitude, and a social system based on rationing by aggression and stupidity.

One of our paramount needs in this new day of crisis and opportunity is for a character renewal. There are many reasons to reject the green cornucopian siren songs of geoengineering and biofuels, GMOs and nukes and CCS. On an economic level surely the age of monumental architecture is over. It would be an insane waste of effort and wealth to even try such things. 

But we should also ask, what’s the moral quality of a sense of entitlement which says we should burn food to fill our gas tanks, when this causes the price of food to rise unendurably for the world’s poor? When it even leads to shortages, riots, and mass starvation? Wouldn’t such selfishness be evil?

There’s also the the morality involved in an environmental and social baseline. I never had to treat with the costs, logistic boondoggles, and risks of CCS (although these are immense and render the project irrational), since the environmental and socioeconomic ravages of mountaintop removal mining by themselves rule out coal as a constructive part of civilization. Indeed, I don’t even have to reach the carbon issue here. We can say the same vis nukes and the ravages of uranium mining.  In these cases we see how there are many levels of moral, practical, and rational disqualifiers for all these Tower of Babel projects. Different people will place different emphases at different levels of critique, but my point is I don’t see how anyone can with integrity accept the Tower. It is the monumental architecture of terminal decadence.

Debt consumerism’s moral and corrosive effects heightened the environmental devastation and resource depletion it fed off of in a vicious circle. The giant political and social structures this dynamic raised up – centralized, concentrating and intensifying power and wealth – have been used for social and geopolitical domination.

Materially, politically, and spiritually the motion has been away from the freedom this country was supposed to embody. We aren’t living the good life of classical leisure and intellectual fulfillment the apostles of technology promised. Politically we are simply not free. Rather, any voice which does not join in the hymn sung by big government/big business/big media is marginalized. We in the blogsphere are trying to make inroads on this, but as we all know it’s slow, arduous going at best, and it’s unlikely our ideas can achieve “mainstream” status in time. 

Spiritually, we have to rebuild from the ground up. Here too we need to relocalize. Any good idea, and any way of living with integrity, started locally and never got very big. The catch-22 we face is that by the time a truth becomes mainstream it’s no longer a truth, and by the time an idea becomes mainstream it’s been leached of all vibrance and is just the wraith of an idea. We’ve seen what’s happened with the “green” theme as consumerism and the big profit motive got ahold of it. Does this have to be true of relocalization as well? Is a mainstream relocalist idea a contradiction in terms? Or is relocalization not so much an idea as a template for action which can be invested with a great variety of ideas, rhythms, tones? I look forward to finding out.

March 28, 2009

Size, Complexity, and Gluttony (1 of 2)


In my online work this morning I read three pieces which synergized for me. (links at the bottom)
The subjects of Dave Cohen’s latest column, The Secretary of Synthetic Biology, Joe Romm’s Climate Progress post on the putative nuclear renaissance, and Simon Johnson’s Atlantic piece on the financial crash and oligarchy seemed to have a common thread:
1. A will to maintain size, complexity, and exponential debt;
2. The enlistment of science and engineering toward this strategy;
3. All for the sake of oligarchy and debt consumerism.
I’ve written a lot recently about oligarchy so I’ll give that a rest for now, but in this post I want to jot down some notes on the other elements here.
Cohen details how Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu is fixated on a broad vision of technological heroism to keep Americans in their personal cars. The project combines every gigantist engineering nightmare: GMOs, aggrofuels, and CCS, all to be RDDD’d over the next 20 to 80 years. The goal is to develop “4th generation biofuels”. Genetically modified feedstock, engineered to be ever more photosynthetically efficient and to sequester unnatural amounts of carbon, is to be grown with hyper-efficiency on minimal acreage. (Or so they claim – that’s how it’s not supposed to compete with food production. But Jevon’s paradox aside, how are you supposed to control this GMO? As Cohen writes, “The mere fact that evolution has placed upper bounds on the efficiency of primary productivity in plants suggests that there are very deep reasons why this is so”. We may be contemplating kudzu of mass destruction here.) It’ll then be burned in biorefineries to produce liquid fuel while the carbon is sequested underground. They say it’ll also produce better matches than any computer dating service.
And what grand millennial goal is this all to be toward? What societal vision and strategy? None – it’s all for the sake of debt consumerism and profligate car use.
The same can be said for the dreamt-of expansion of nuclear power. Romm’s latest restates and summarizes the truths. It is tremendously expensive, complex, and unmanageable by any measure which correctly discounts black swan events.
We are currently undergoing the travails of this black swan burndown as the financial megastructure unravels. Simon Johnson’s article describes, among other things, how and why this humongously ramified structure was built. Again the means and the mindset were triumphalist where to came to size, complexity, and “quant” engineering for their own sakes, while the underlying purpose, the answer to the question “Why? For what?”, was paltry and vapid.
When we are asked to look to the putative future gods of size and efficiency, like Chu and the 4th generation aggrofuelers or the nuclear revivalists, we should be looking at the present economic cannibalization of Western civilization as the debt bubble and the bank holding structure collapse. These are all levels of the same Tower of Babel. 
Let’s consider a few points:
Size is not in fact “efficient”. It is efficient only from the point of view of a rent-seeking gang using political muscle to externalize and socialize costs, and to foist all systemic and black swan risks into a risk bubble which like Vesuvius is assumed on faith to never erupt.
The fact is that none of these large structures are cost-effective. They are rather inherently corporatist. There is no conceivable way for nuclear energy, CCS, or bank holding to exist within a true capitalist framework.
If we grant this corporatized mega-structure, allegedly efficient from the point of view of having shifted most of its costs onto the backs of the people and the environment, it is still systemically weak. As Kunstler wrote, “the road to hell is paved with efficiency”. The system has no resiliency, no redundancy, everything always has to perform well; the system can sustain no setbacks.
Whenever we hear the term “efficiency” in a pro-concentration, pro-centralization, globalist sense, we should think of something that looks futuristically sleek and ultrahealthy, but which is at every moment on the verge of death. We see this now with the finance system. But it’s just as true of the energy consumption system, how both the growing and transport of food depend upon a never-ending flow of liquid fuel, and how that food depends in turn upon the integrity of the soil.
When we ponder the prospect that the soil is exhausted; that oil supply would already be constricted if not for the economic depression, but that this constriction will come inevitably, sooner or later; and that the only plans of the powers that be are to build technology bubbles, Towers of Babel, to keep these systems staggering along, we should worry.
When we consider how the practice is to zombify the soil by bombing it with synthetic fertilizer; in order to grow engineered crops which increasingly will be the only ones which can grow in the hotter, drier world, and on such poisoned soil; in order to burn them to produce the fuel which can keep the globalized distribution network humming; which will keep shipping the goods which the people will keep buying with the debt they can momentarily fabricate by still being able to drive their personal cars to work; and which will continue to deliver the natural gas and nutrients this fertilizer requires; and meanwhile how their electricity will come from hundreds of new nuclear plants, all of which will have an endless supply of cheap uranium (or deuterium, if they’re fusion plants); and the carbon from all this activity will be captured and piped underground or to the bottom of the sea, where it will remain safely stored for thousands of years; and therefore the worst effects of the climate crisis and how it could wreak havoc on every element of the Tower I’ve been describing will be averted; and how all of this will be financed by a new and improved bank holding system which will be bigger, more complex, more ramified, and create ever more debt to keep all of this going economically……
…when we consider all this,  we should look at what’s happening to the financial system of today, and picture how incalculably worse the devastation would be if just one thing went wrong with the Tower I just described. And how here we’re talking about immediate, direct effects far more extensive and fundamental than not being able to get a bank loan. We’re talking about fuel and food stoppages.
In his article Johnson compares America to a banana republic. Indeed, in a sense America is an “emerging market”. Much like neo-feudal systems now slash-and-burn the rain forest in order to produce biofuels (and soon GMO biofuels), and how the economy and the earth are mined to extract the capitalization and the uranium required for nuclear energy, so America has slashed and burned its manufacturing economy and social safety net to replace it with a globalized finance economy. This “new”, i.e. atavistic and reactionary finance economy has plunged us back into a feudalistic Dark Age where, organized along crony capitalist lines, it has been only mining the country, not “producing”. And now with the bailouts the mining has been stepped up.
Simon Johnson http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200905/imf-advice 
Dave Cohen http://www.aspousa.org/index.php/2009/03/the-secretary-of-synthetic-biology/ 
Joe Romm http://climateprogress.org/2009/03/27/three-mile-island-anniversary-meltdown-nuclear-power-problems/#more-5163

March 21, 2009

Geoengineering and the Carbon Shock

Filed under: Climate Crisis, Disaster Capitalism — Tags: , , , , — Russ @ 10:23 am


As the climate crisis sets in, through ongoing, intensifying weather phenomena as well as a political fact, there’s increasing buzz around seeking a solution, not through mitigation and decreased consumption, but through building the technological Tower of Babel higher. As with energy and the economy, so with the environment mankind remains aggressively delusional. We refuse to recognize that the exponential growth civilizational model is both the source of all our problems and is unsustainable in any event.
We refuse to see that the solution, the adaptation to all our predicaments, can only be an organized devolution. Just as they say the finance industry needs to unwind $500 trillion paper worth of derivatives (what they’re actually doing is another matter) in order to become stable, so a ponderously top-heavy civilization must unwind its systemic economic, energy, and environmental positions.
But people don’t want to do this. So just as when AIG got in trouble it doubled down with toxic mortgage derivatives, so global civilization seeks to double down on its toxic technological assaults on the environment.
Geoengineering is tailor-made for disaster capitalism, which is the only reason I fear that, as crazy and reckless as it is, it might actually be attempted even as all civilian infrastructure rots and the food crisis reaches pandemic levels.
With things like agrofuel mandates, the offset industry, and advocacy for alleged cap-and-trade which in practice would fail to impose the cap but which would use the “trade” to try to inflate a carbon bubble, we’re starting to see the outlines of a campaign to enlist climate change policy for profit.
So it’s all too plausible that after years of denying, delaying, and obstructing all rational carbon policy, once the climate crisis really becomes branded in the public consciousness by way of permanent drought and ever more frequent extreme weather events, the same cadres who fought sound policy will then take the lead in calling for geoengineering boondoggles.
These will never work and won’t be meant to work by their political advocates. They probably won’t be meant to even be completed.
But they will be meant to receive massive public funding, almost all of which will be funnelled directly to private profit.
That’s what the real purpose of geoengineering would be, if it were ever to be seriously attempted. Just like the vaunted “nuclear renaissance” and the until-recently looming CCS deployment, it would be a corporatist boondoggle, a vehicle for disaster capitalist plunder, this time leeching off the biggest self-created disaster of them all, the climate crisis.
Given the way things are going nowadays, where clearly the only way to temporarily prop up the corpse of the debt economy is to reflate the old bubble or find a new one to inflate, whenever I look at any large-scale idea I can’t help asking, Can they turn this into a bubble?
There’s already the well-established fear of cap-and-trade being used this way. Perhaps the geoengineering concept can be put to the same purpose.
For example, I haven’t yet heard the suggestion that geoengineering expenditure, even at the think tank level, should qualify as an “offset”, but I have no doubt that’s coming. Once the people are sufficiently convinced of the climate peril that we do get an intensive policy, which will no doubt center on trading in carbon permits, offsets, IPOs from tech startups touting every imaginable climate fix from free energy to swaddling the earth in space panels, and in derivatives of all these pieces of paper, we’ll then be all set for a new kind of CDS: climate disaster swaps.
(This picture is still hazy for now, but we can see the outlines of the carbon bubble. Policy advocates say all this can be easily prevented. I hope so, but we’ve seen how well regulation worked in the past.)
The environmental objection to geoengineering is the same as it’s always been: the precautionary principle. The geoengineering boosters themselves acknowledge the obvious dangers. Just the concept of atmospheric sulphate injections threatens to eradicate the ozone layer and create fallout as health-crushing acid rain. Other ideas hold the menace of generating oceanic dead zones. Then there’s the fear of addicting the climate system to an artificial fix which could never be withdrawn without triggering a cataclysmic heating spike (though to some of these engineers the sheer artificiality of this enslavement probably sounds cool).
And yet we still have no idea that these wouldn’t be just the tip of the iceberg. On the contrary, given the historical record of environmental reverberations, precaution forces us to assume the unforeseen effects of such an intervention in the global ecosystem would dwarf the foreseeable ones, which are horrific enough.
We are basically in a species civil war over two ways of conceiving and acting upon our gaiacidal rapacity. One is to repent, pull back from the brink, devolve consumption and the machine, and learn to seek happiness and love rather than gluttony and violence.
The other is to continue the onslaught. This includes all Tower of Babel technofixes which try to have it all, rampant consumption bathed in a “green” gaslight.
Agrofuels, GMOs, geoengineering. Three (engineered) peas in a pod. These are three absolute threats to the ecological and human future.
Just as with agrofuels and GMOs the green and humanitarian talk is just talk, so it is with geoengineering. The real projects will of course be so large and require so much up-front capitalization that massive public monies will be needed to get them off the ground. (If, as their advocates claim, sulphate injections or cloud-brightening are actually relatively inexpensive, then you can bet they’ll either be massively porked up, or they won’t become the projects of choice. Instead policy-makers will choose to fund a solar panel girdle around the earth or some such nonsense. There’s a reason Detroit favored SUVs over small sedans, and it wasn’t because SUVs ever served any practical purpose.)
Then there’s the likelihood that geoengineering research will be co-opted for military ends. Indeed, the War Department is currently involved in such research. Wanting to use weather modification for military purposes has been the main driver of all government meteorological research funding since the fifties. Deep down all they’ve ever wanted to do is build a weather machine.
So here as elsewhere we see the carbon shock taking shape: the crisis will be used to prop up the zombie debt civilization with new derivatives and startup bubbles, as a pretext for the redistribution of wealth from the public to large private structures, and for the development of new weapons.
Geoengineering is an idea with this future, if it has any future at all.
Having said all that, I’ll try to end on an optimistic note. Luckily, the scheme is so top-heavy, requires such a large fossil fuel platform, and would require such extravagant initial capital outlays, that with the world economy steadily eroding and Peak Oil at the door, it might not be physically or economically possible to make any real attempt at it.