Degrowing the Economy

SUBHEAD: It's only one way to avoid climate catastrophe that we find ourselves in the midst of.

By Jason Hickle on 18 October 2017 for the P2P Foundation -

Image above: View of abandoned city from movie "Blade Runner 2029". From (

You can almost feel the planet writhing. This summer brought some of the biggest, most destructive storms in recorded history: Harvey laid waste to huge swathes of Texas; Irma left Barbuda virtually uninhabitable; Maria ravaged Dominica and plunged Puerto Rico into darkness.

The images we see in the media are almost too violent to comprehend. And these are the storms that made the news; many others did not.

Monsoon flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal killed 1,200 people and left millions homeless, but Western media paid little attention: it’s too much suffering to take in at once.

What’s most disturbing about this litany of pain is that it’s only going to get worse.

A recent paper in the journal Nature estimates that our chances of keeping global warming below the danger threshold of 2 degrees is now vanishingly small: only about 5 per cent. It’s more likely that we’re headed for around 3.2 degrees of warming, and possibly as much as 4.9 degrees.

If scientists are clear about anything, it’s that this level of climate change will be nothing short of catastrophic. Indeed, there’s a good chance that it would render large-scale civilization impossible.

Why are our prospects so bleak? According to the paper’s authors, it’s because the cuts we’re making to greenhouse gas emissions are being more than cancelled out by economic growth. In the coming decades, we’ll be able to reduce the carbon intensity (CO2 per unit of GDP) of the global economy by about 1.9 per cent per year, they say, if we make heavy investments in clean energy and efficient technology.

That’s a lot.

But as long as the economy keeps growing by more than that, total emissions are still going to rise. Right now we’re ratcheting up global GDP by 3 per cent per year. At that rate, the maths is not in our favour; on the contrary, it’s slapping us in the face.

In fact, according to new models published last year, with a background rate of 3 per cent GDP growth it’s not possible to achieve any level of emissions reductions at all, even under best-case-scenario conditions. Study after study shows the same thing: keeping global warming below 2 degrees is simply not compatible with continued economic growth.

This is a tough pill to swallow. After all, right now GDP growth is the primary policy objective of virtually every government on Earth.

Over in Silicon Valley, tech-optimists are hoping that a miracle of artificial intelligence might allow us to decarbonise the economy by 3 per cent or more per year, so we can continue growing the GDP while reducing emissions. It sounds wonderful.

But remember, the goal is not just to reduce carbon emissions – the goal is to reduce them dramatically, and fast.

How fast, exactly?

Climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows say that if we want to have even a mere 50 per cent chance of staying under 2 degrees, rich nations are going to have to cut emissions by 8-10 per cent per year, beginning in 2015. Keep in mind we’re already two years in, and so far our emissions reductions have been zero.

Here’s the hard bit. It’s just not possible to achieve emissions reductions of 8-10 per cent per year by decarbonising the economy. In fact, there is a strong scientific consensus that emissions reductions of this rate are only feasible if we stop our mad pursuit of economic growth and do something totally unprecedented: begin to scale down our annual production and consumption. This is what ecologists call ‘planned de-growth’

It sounds horrible, at first glance. It sounds like austerity, or voluntary poverty. After all, for decades we’ve been told that GDP growth is good, that it’s essential to progress, and that if we want to eradicate poverty around the world, we need more of it.

The only reason we’re all chasing GDP growth is because we’ve been made to believe that it’s the only way to improve the incomes and lives of ordinary people. But it’s not.

Politicians and economists rally around GDP growth because they see it as preferable to redistribution. They would rather grow the pie than go about the messy business of sharing what we already have more equally, since the latter tends to upset rich people.

Henry Wallich, a former member of the US Federal Reserve Board, made this clear when he pointed out that ‘Growth is a substitute for equality’.

But we can flip Wallich’s greedy little quip on its head: if growth is a substitute for equality, then equality can be a substitute for growth. By sharing what we already have more fairly, we can render additional economic growth unnecessary.

In this sense, de-growth is nothing at all like austerity. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Austerity means cutting social spending and slashing taxes on the rich in order to – supposedly – keep the economy growing. This has crushing consequences for ordinary people’s lives.

De-growth, by contrast, calls for cutting the excesses of the richest while redistributing existing resources and investing in social goods – universal healthcare, education, affordable housing etc.

The whole point is to sustain and even improve human wellbeing without the need for endless economic expansion. De-growth is a philosophy that insists that our economy is already more than abundant enough for all of us – if only we learn how to share it.

One easy way to do this would be to roll out a universal basic income and fund it through new progressive taxes – taxes on carbon, on land, on resource use, on financial transactions, and so on.

This is the most sensible and elegant way to share our abundance, and it comes with an added benefit: if the basic income is high enough, it will free people to walk away from unnecessary jobs that produce unnecessary stuff, releasing some of the pressure on our planet.

Crucially, de-growth does not mean we have to get rid of the stock of stuff that we already have, as a nation: houses, furniture, shoes, museums, railways, whatever. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that we have to stop producing and consuming new stuff.

It just means we have to reduce the amount of new stuff that we produce and consume each year.

When you see it this way, it’s really not so threatening.

If we degrow by 5 per cent per year (which is what scientists say is necessary), that means we have to cut our consumption of new stuff by 5 per cent. It’s easy to make up for that by just repairing and reusing stuff we already have. And we can encourage this more creative approach to stuff by curbing advertising, like Sao Paulo, Chennai and other cities have done.

Of course, there are deeper, more structural dimensions of our economy that we will have to change.

One of the reasons we need growth is to pay off all the debt that’s sloshing around in our economy. In fact, our entire money system is based on debt: more than 90 per cent of the currency circulating in our economy is loans created out of thin air by commercial banks.

The problem with debt is that it comes with interest, and to pay off interest at a compound rate we have to work, earn, and sell more and more each year. In this sense, every dollar of new money we create heats up the planet.

But cancel the debt and shift to a debt-free currency, and suddenly we don’t have to labour under this relentless pressure. There are already plenty of ideas out there for how to do this.

Still, we have to be honest with ourselves: : the Stern Review projects that climate change is set to cost us 5-20 per cent of global GDP per year, which is going to violently change our economy beyond all recognition, and cause enormous human suffering in the process.

The storms that churned across the Atlantic this summer are only a small taste of what is to come.

The choice is clear: either we evolve into a future beyond capitalism, or we won’t have a future at all.

Dr Jason Hickel: An anthropologist who works on political economy and global justice. He is the author of a number of books, including most recently The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions(Penguin 2017).

Into the Cold and Dark

SUBHEAD: American life which emerges from this maelstrom will not look like what we’re living in today.

By James Kunstler on 20 October 2017 for -

Image above: Illustration of obese crazy American with machinegun. By Pokket Mowse at Found at (

It amuses me that the nation is so caught up in the sexual mischief of a single Hollywood producer when the nation as a whole is getting fucked sideways and upside down by its own political caretakers.

Behind all the smoke, mirrors, Trump bluster, Schumer fog, and media mystification about the vaudeville act known as The Budget and The Tax Cut, both political parties are fighting for their lives and the Deep State knows that it is being thrown overboard to drown in red ink.

There’s really no way out of the financial conundrum that dogs the republic and something’s got to give.

Many of us have been waiting for these tensions to express themselves by blowing up the artificially levitated stock markets.

For about a year, absolutely nothing has thwarted their supernatural ascent, including the threat of World War Three, leading some observers to believe that they have been rigged to perfection.

Well, the algo-bots might be pretty fine-tuned, and the central bank inputs of fresh “liquidity” pretty much assured, but for all that, these markets are still human artifacts and Murphy’s Law still lurks out there in the gloaming with its cohorts, the diminishing returns of technology (a.k.a. “Blowback”), and the demon of unintended consequences.

Many, including yours truly, have expected the distortions and perversions on the money side of life to express themselves in money itself: the dollar.

So far, it has only wobbled down about ten percent. This is due perhaps to the calibrated disinformation known as “forward guidance” issued by this country’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, which has been threatening — pretty idly so far — to raise interest rates and shrink down its vault of hoarded securities — a lot of it janky paper left over from the misadventures of 2007-2009.

I guess the lesson is that when you have a pervasively false and corrupt financial system, it is always subject to a little additional accounting fraud — until it’s not. And the next thing you know, you’re sitting in the rubble of what used to be your civilization.

The ever more immiserated schnooks who make up the former middle-class know that their lives are crumbling, and may feel that they’re subject to the utterly overwhelming forces of a cruel destiny generated by a leviathan state that hates and despises them.

And of course that is exactly why they turned to the Golden Golem of Greatness for salvation.

Alas, Mr. Trump has not constructed a coherent strategy for defeating the colossus of fakery that drives the nation ever-deeper toward the cold and dark.

He has a talent for distraction and disruption, though, and so far that gave cover to a whole lot of other people in power who have been able to stand around with their hands in their pockets doing nothing about the sinking state of the nation.

Now, the vaudeville act is coming to a spectacular conclusion as the trappings of Halloween go back in the closet and the pulsating, LED-studded Santas go up on the rooftops.

Every ceremony of American life seems drained of meaning now, including the machinations of government over the budget and taxes.

The revolution to come out of this frozen swamp of irresponsibility will be the messiest and most incoherent in world history. Nobody will have any idea what is going on outside the geo-storm of failure.

About the only thing one can say for sure is that the American life which emerges from this maelstrom will not look a whole lot like what we’re living in today.

I remain serenely convinced that when it finally passes, the air will be fresh again and the sun will shine, and a lot more people will know what is real and what is not.


The Path We Take

SUBHEAD: Turn left in 300 feet … turn left … turn left…. Rerouting … rerouting … rerouting.

By Brian Miller on 3 OCtober 2017 for Winged Elm Farm -

Image above: Modern dashboard automobile navigation system displays route ahead and can anticipate traffic ahead. From (

Recently, a young relative of mine set out on a 600-mile road trip to attend his cousin’s wedding — and got lost halfway there when his phone went dead. Hearing of his misadventure I was confused. How could someone go so far and then get lost?

And how did a dead phone terminate his travels?

Did he not consult a map? Own one? Pick up the free one at the state line?

No, apparently a map wasn’t needed because he had a smart phone. Until it wasn’t.

The would-be wedding guest set off on an eight-hour-plus journey, armed with no more than an address to guide him in where and how he was going. So, what did he do, when the phone, and consequently the GPS, died? He turned around and drove home.

As kids, my older brother and I would sit down with the National Geographic and, starting in June, begin to dream about August vacation destinations. The back pages of the magazine were chock-full of advertisements from state tourism boards.

We’d send off for packets from exciting places like Montana, New Mexico, and Idaho, all locations with elevations higher than the six-feet-above-sea-level spot that we called home.

Soon, fat packages of maps and “things to do” would arrive in the mail.

The maps would be unfolded on the kitchen table, where we would trace out routes we might take on the most narrow and obscure road possible. “Let’s drive down this little road in this valley south of Missoula,” I’d say. We’d pull out the encyclopedia and read about places we were going to visit.

There were shoeboxes jammed with maps in the closet, a big globe and stacks of atlases in the den.

Today, in my own library, there resides a broad assortment of state and international maps and world and historical atlases. Because, maps give us more than a hopeful path to a distant destination. They inform.

Why is there a Northwest Angle exclave in Minnesota, and just what is an exclave anyway? Where were the original colonial boundaries of North Carolina? How did the frontier of the late Roman Empire contract? Maps inform, and they also feed our curiosity:

Is Puerto Rico surrounded by water? (Why, indeed it is, Mr. President.)

They serve as a springboard into the past, present, and future. And, yes, even answer the mundane: What are my options for getting to a wedding in Oregon?

Of course, GPS is a remarkable technological feature. It gets us to a destination without getting lost, without having to wonder where we are. Yet, cocooning ourselves in a cushion of geographical illiteracy also breeds a listless lack of awareness, demanding nothing more from us than an abiding self-interest.

And, in the absence of an alternative mode of mapping — whether it’s orienting to the sun or grabbing the gazetteer — when the GPS goes dark, it leaves us with no option but to turn around and go home, wherever that might be.


Truth about Military Recruiting

SUBHEAD: Military recruiters don't tell the whole truth. Help us complete the picture.

By Kip Goodwin on 3 October 2017 for Hawaii Peace and Justice -

Image above: Volunteers providing information about the truth regarding US military recruitment in support of 808truth2youth and Hawaii Peace and Justice. From

The Pentagon spends $1.4 billion annually on public relations and recruiting, teaming with professional sports, Hollywood, and the video gaming and media industries. Their primary audience is 15 to 25 year olds, the demographic from which they recruit about one quarter million annually.

There are missing pieces in the recruitment narrative, and there is no organized effort on the part of the schools or anyone else to fill in gaps. We need your support to meet the need. If we reach our goal, more than 20,000 Hawaii youth will have the opportunity to learn:
Enlistment contract promises made to the enlistee can ALL be broken.
Service term is for eight years, and may be extended.
Job training is for military, not civilian jobs.
College benefits are NOT guaranteed.
Our young Hawaii citizens who are committing to military service have a right to know:

Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs report in 2016 that 10 to 17% of combat veterans suffer PTSD and 10-23% have traumatic brain injury (TBI).  25% have some to extreme difficulty in social functioning, productivity and self care.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports in 2015 male veterans 50% as likely, women vets almost twice as likely to be homeless, than the general population.

In 2014, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men reported military sexual trauma. "For women, an experience of sexual trauma while in the military greatly increases risk of homelessness."

The Veterans Administration reports in 2016 thirty veterans per 100,000 population commit suicide, more than twice the number for the general population. On average, twenty veterans are committing suicide every day.

America's Health Rankings, based on interviews with 400,000 Americans in 2016, reported 62% higher rate of heart disease and 13% higher rate of cancer in veterans than in the general population.

Modern neuroscience teaches us that the parts of our brains that allow reason to overcome emotion don't fully mature until our early to mid twenties. The military plays on this with promises of adventure. Our mission is to fully disclose the reality of the military commitment, during active duty and afterward.

808truth2youth is currently engaged in social media outreach to our children growing into adulthood in low income communities (the most recruiter-vulnerable) on the four main islands. Every six days, our posts have gone out to hundreds of young people on Facebook. We have surpassed 10,000 "reaches". You can see these posts on our Facebook page, 808truth2youth.

We encourage them to consider alternatives, especially education leading to secure, good paying careers that promote peace. Our donation website,, has a how-to guide to the best schools, and scholarships exclusively for students who show an interest in social justice, nuclear disarmament and conflict resolution.

Please help us empower our youth with the truth about the military and by extension about America's addiction to a war economy and the endless cycle of war that will end only when a critical mass of awareness is arrived at.

Image above: Retired Special Forces Master Sergeant Stan Goff explains what military life really entails. From (

Thank you! for what support you can give for our Hawaii youth's right to know.

You can donate to our mission through Hawaii Peace and Justice, our fiscal sponsor.

Click here to donate:

Send a check to:
Hawaii Peace and Justice
2426 O`ahu Avenue
Honolulu, Hawaii 96822-1967

-in memo line, write 8808truth2youth


Run the Economy on the Weather

SUBHEAD: Adjusting energy demand to supply would make switching to renewable energy much more realistic.

By Kris De Decker on 21 September 2017 for Low Tech Magazine -

Image above: Detail from painting "Stoneferry" by John Ward in 1835. This painting depicts a scene on the River Hull near to the oilseed-crushing mills at Stoneferry in Hull England. From original article.

Before the Industrial Revolution, people adjusted their energy demand to a variable energy supply. Our global trade and transport system -- which relied on sail boats -- operated only when the wind blew, as did the mills that supplied our food and powered many manufacturing processes.

The same approach could be very useful today, especially when improved by modern technology. In particular, factories and cargo transportation -- such as ships and even trains -- could be operated only when renewable energy is available.

Adjusting energy demand to supply would make switching to renewable energy much more realistic than it is today.

Renewable Energy in Pre-Industrial Times
Before the Industrial Revolution, both industry and transportation were largely dependent on intermittent renewable energy sources. Water mills, windmills and sailing boats have been in use since Antiquity, but the Europeans brought these technologies to full development from the 1400s onwards.

At their peak, right before the Industrial Revolution took off, there were an estimated 200,000 wind powered mills and 500,000 water powered mills in Europe. Initially, water mills and windmills were mainly used for grinding grain, a laborious task that had been done by hand for many centuries, first with the aid of stones and later with a rotary hand mill.

However, soon water and wind powered mills were adapted to industrial processes like sawing wood, polishing glass, making paper, boring pipes, cutting marble, slitting metal, sharpening knives, crushing chalk, grinding mortar, making gunpowder, minting coins, and so on. [1-3]

Wind- and water mills also processed a host of agricultural products. They were pressing olives, hulling barley and rice, grinding spices and tobacco, and crushing linseed, rapeseed and hempseed for cooking and lighting.

So-called 'industrial water mills' had been used in Antiquity and were widely adopted in Europe by the fifteenth century, but 'industrial windmills' appeared only in the 1600s in the Netherlands, a country that took wind power to the extreme.

The Dutch even applied wind power to reclaim land from the sea, and the whole country was kept dry by intermittently operating wind mills until 1850. [1-3]

The use of wind power for transportation – in the form of the sailboat – also boomed from the 1500s onward, when Europeans 'discovered' new lands.

Wind powered transportation supported a robust, diverse and ever expanding international trading system in both bulk goods (such as grain, wine, wood, metals, ceramics, and preserved fish), luxury items (such as precious metals, furs, spices, ivory, silks, and medicine) and human slaves. [4]

Even though it relied on intermittent wind sources, international trade was crucial to many European economies. For example, the Dutch shipbuilding industry, which was centred around some 450 wind-powered saw mills, imported virtually all its naval stores from the Baltic: wood, tar, iron, hemp and flax.

Even the food supply could depend on wind-powered transportation. Towards the end of the 1500s, the Dutch imported two thousand shiploads of grain per year from Gdansk. [4] Sailboats were also important for fishing.

Dealing with Intermittency in Pre-Industrial Times
Although variable renewable energy sources were critical to European society for some 500 years before fossil fuels took over, there were no chemical batteries, no electric transmission lines, and no balancing capacity of fossil fuel power plants to deal with the variable energy output of wind and water power. So, how did our ancestors deal with the large variability of renewable power sources?

To some extent, they were counting on technological solutions to match energy supply to energy demand, just as we do today. The water level in a river depends on the weather and the seasons. Boat mills and bridge mills were among the earliest technological fixes to this problem.

They went up and down with the water level, which allowed them to maintain a more predictable operating regime. [1-2]

However, water power could also be stored for later use. Starting in the middle ages, dams were built to create mill ponds, a form of energy storage that's similar to today's hydropower reservoirs. The storage reservoirs evened out the flow of streams and insured that water was available when it was needed. [2] [5]

Image above: "The Horse Mill" is a painting by English animal painter James Herring circa 1850 depicting a milling of grain by animal power. From original article.

But rivers could still dry out or freeze over for prolonged periods, rendering dams and adjustable water wheels useless. Furthermore, when one counted on windmills, no such technological fixes were available. [3] [6-7]

A technological solution to the intermittency of both water and wind power was the 'beast mill' or 'horse mill'. [8] In contrast to wind and water power, horses, donkeys or oxen could be counted on to supply power whenever it was required.

However, beast mills were expensive and energy inefficient to operate: feeding a horse required a land area capable of feeding eight humans. [9] Consequently, the use of animal power in large-scale manufacturing processes was rare.

Beast mills were mostly used for the milling of grain or as a power source in small workshop settings, using draft animals. [1]

Obviously, beast mills were not a viable backup power source for sailing ships either. In principle, sailing boats could revert to human power when wind was not available. However, a sufficiently large rowing crew needed extra water and food, which would have limited the range of the ship, or its cargo capacity.

Therefore, rowing was mainly restricted to battleships and smaller boats.

Adjusting Demand to Supply: Factories
Because of their limited technological options for dealing with the variability of renewable energy sources, our ancestors mainly resorted to a strategy that we have largely forgotten about: they adapted their energy demand to the variable energy supply.

In other words, they accepted that renewable energy was not always available and acted accordingly. For example, windmills and sailboats were simply not operated when there was no wind.

In industrial windmills, work was done whenever the wind blew, even if that meant that the miller had to work night and day, taking only short naps.

For example, a document reveals that at the Union Mill in Cranbrook, England, the miller once had only three hours sleep during a windy period lasting 60 hours. [3] A 1957 book about windmills, partly based on interviews with the last surviving millers, reveals the urgency of using wind when it was available:
Often enough when the wind blew in autumn, the miller would work from Sunday midnight to Tuesday evening, Wednesday morning to Thursday night, and Friday morning to Saturday midnight, taking only a few snatches of sleep; and a good windmiller always woke up in bed when the wind rose, getting up in the middle of the night to set the mill going, because the wind was his taskmaster and must be taken advantage of whenever it blew.

Many a village has at times gone short of wheaten bread because the local mill was becalmed in a waterless district before the invention of the steam engine; and barley-meal bread or even potato bread had to suffice in the crisis of a windless autumn. [10]
In earlier, more conservative times, the miller was punished for working on Sunday, but he didn't always care. When a protest against Sunday work was made to Mr. Wade of Wicklewood towermill, Norfolk, he retorted: "If the Lord is good enough to send me wind on a Sunday, I'm going to use it". [11]

On the other hand, when there was no wind, millers did other work, like maintaining their machinery, or took time off. Noah Edwards, the last miller of Arkley tower mill, Hertfordshire, would “sit on the fan stage of a fine evening and play his fiddle”. [11]

Adjusting Demand to Supply: Sailboats
A similar approach existed for overseas travel, using sail boats. When there was no wind, sailors stayed ashore, maintained and repaired their ships, or did other things.

They planned their trips according to the seasons, making use of favourable seasonal winds and currents. Winds at sea are not only much stronger than those over land, but also more predictable.
Sailors planned their trips according to the seasons, making use of favourable seasonal winds and currents.
The lower atmosphere of the planet is encircled by six major wind belts, three in each hemisphere. From Equator to poles these 'prevailing winds' are the trade winds, the westerlies, and the easterlies. The six wind belts move north in the northern summer and south in the northern winter. Five major sea current gyres are correlated with the dominant wind flows.

Gradually, European sailors deciphered the global pattern of winds and currents and took full advantage of them to establish new sea routes all over the world.

By the 1500s, Christopher Columbus had figured out that the combination of trade winds and westerlies enabled a round-trip route for sailing ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The trade winds reach their northernmost latitude at or after the end of the northern summer, bringing them in reach of Spain and Portugal. These summer trade winds made it easy to sail from Southern Europe to the Caribbean and South America, because the wind was blowing in that direction along the route.

Taking the same route back would be nearly impossible. However, Iberian sailors first sailed north to catch the westerlies, which reach their southernmost location at or after the end of winter and carried the sailors straight back to Southern Europe. In the 1560s, Basque explorer Andrés de Urdaneta discovered a similar round-trip route in the Pacific Ocean. [12]
The use of favourable winds made travel times of sailboats relatively reliable. The fastest Atlantic crossing was 21 days, the slowest 29 days.
The use of favourable winds made the travel times of sailboats relatively predictable. Ocean Passages for the World mentions that typical passage times from New York to the English Channel for a mid-19th to early 20th century sailing vessel was 25 to 30 days. From 1818 to 1832, the fastest crossing was 21 days, the slowest 29 days. [13]

The journey from the English Channel to New York took 35-40 days in winter and 40-50 days in summer. To Cape Town, Melbourne, and Calcutta took 50-60 days, 80-90 days, and 100-120 days, respectively. [13] These travel times are double to triple those of today's container ships, which vary their speed based on oil prices and economic demand.

Old Approach, New Technology
As a strategy to deal with variable energy sources, adjusting energy demand to renewable energy supply is just as valuable a solution today as it was in pre-industrial times. However, this does not mean that we need to go back to pre-industrial means.

We have better technology available, which makes it much easier to synchronise the economic demands with the vagaries of the weather.

In the following paragraphs, I investigate in more detail how industry and transportation could be operated on variable energy sources alone, and demonstrate how new technologies open new possibilities. I then conclude by analysing the effects on consumers, workers, and economic growth.

Industrial Manufacturing
On a global scale, industrial manufacturing accounts for nearly half of all energy end use. Many mechanical processes that were run by windmills are still important today, such as sawing, cutting, boring, drilling, crushing, hammering, sharpening, polishing, milling, turning, and so on.

All these production processes can be run with an intermittent power supply.

The same goes for food production processes (mincing, grinding or hulling grains, pressing olives and seeds), mining and excavation (picking and shovelling, rock and ore crushing), or textile production (fulling cloth, preparing fibres, knitting and weaving). In all these examples, intermittent energy input does not affect the quality of the production process, only the production speed.
Many production processes are not strongly disadvantaged by an intermittent power supply.
Running these processes on variable power sources has become a lot easier than it was in earlier times. For one thing, wind power plants are now completely automated, while the traditional windmill required constant attention. [14]

However, not only are wind turbines (and water turbines) more practical and powerful than in earlier times, we can now make use of solar energy to produce mechanical energy. This is usually done with solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, which convert sunlight into electricity to run an electric motor.

Consequently, a factory that requires mechanical energy can be run on a combination of wind and solar power, which increases the chances that there's sufficient energy to run its machinery.

The ability to harvest solar energy is important because it's by far the most widely available renewable power source. Most of the potential capacity for water power is already taken. [15]

Thermal Energy
Another crucial difference with pre-industrial times is that we can apply the same strategy to basic industrial processes that require thermal energy instead of mechanical energy. Heat dominates industrial energy use, for instance, in the making of chemicals or microchips, or in the smelting of metals.

In pre-industrial times, manufacturing processes that required thermal energy were powered by the burning of biomass, peat and/or coal. The use of these energy sources caused grave problems, such as large-scale deforestation, loss of land, and air pollution.

Although solar energy was used in earlier times, for instance, to evaporate salt along seashores, to dry crops for preservation, or to sunbake clay bricks, its use was limited to processes that required relatively low temperatures.
We can apply the same strategy to basic industrial processes that require thermal energy instead of mechanical energy, which was not possible before the Industrial Revolution.
Today, renewable energy other than biomass can be used to produce thermal energy in two ways. First, we can use wind turbines, water turbines or solar PV panels to produce electricity, which can then be used to produce heat by electrical resistance. This was not possible in pre-industrial times, because there was no electricity.

Second, we can apply solar heat directly, using water-based flat plate collectors or evacuated tube collectors, which collect solar radiation from all directions and can reach temperatures of 120 degrees celsius.

We also have solar concentrator collectors, which track the sun, concentrate its radiation, and can generate temperatures high enough to melt metals or produce microchips and solar cells. These solar technologies only became available in the late 19th century, following advances in the manufacturing of glass and mirrors.

Limited Energy Storage
Running factories on variable power sources doesn't exclude the use of energy storage or a backup of dispatchable power plants. Adjusting demand to supply should take priority, but other strategies can play a supportive role.

First, energy storage or backup power generation capacity could be useful for critical production processes that can't be halted for prolonged periods, such as food production.

Second, short-term energy storage is also useful to run production processes that are disadvantaged by an intermittent power supply. [16] Third, short-term energy storage is crucial for computer-controlled manufacturing processes, allowing these to continue operating during short interruptions in the power supply, and to shut down safely in case of longer power cuts. [17]

Compared to pre-industrial times, we now have more and better energy storage options available. For example, we can use biomass as a backup power source for mechanical energy production, something pre-industrial millers could not do – before the arrival of the steam engine, there was no way of converting biomass into mechanical energy.
Before the arrival of the steam engine, there was no way of converting biomass into mechanical energy.
We also have chemical batteries, and we have low-tech systems like flywheels, compressed air storage, hydraulic accumulators, and pumped storage plants.

Heat energy can be stored in well-insulated water reservoirs (up to 100 degrees) or in salt, oil or ceramics (for much higher temperatures).

All these storage solutions would fail for some reason or another if they were tasked with storing a large share of renewable energy production. However, they can be very useful on a smaller scale in support of demand adjustment.

The New Age of Sail
Cargo transportation is another candidate for using renewable power when it's available. This is most obvious for shipping. Ships still carry about 90 percent of the world's trade, and although shipping is the most energy efficient way of transportation per tonne-kilometre, total energy use is high and today's oil powered vessels are extremely polluting.

A common high-tech idea is to install wind turbines off-shore, convert the electricity they generate into hydrogen, and then use that hydrogen to power seagoing vessels.

However, it's much more practical and energy efficient to use wind to power ships directly, like we have done for thousands of years.

Furthermore, oil powered cargo ships often float idle for days or even weeks before they can enter a port or leave it, which makes the relative unpredictability of sailboats less problematic.
It's much more practical and energy efficient to use wind to power ships directly.
As with industrial manufacturing, we now have much better technology and knowledge available to base a worldwide shipping industry on wind power alone.

We have new materials to build better and longer-lasting ships and sails, we have more accurate navigation and communication instruments, we have more predictable weather forecasts, we can make use of solar panels for backup engine power, and we have more detailed knowledge about winds and currents.

In fact, the global wind and current patterns were only fully understood when the age of sail was almost over. Between 1842 and 1861, American navigator Matthew Fontaine Maury collected an extensive array of ship logs which enabled him to chart prevailing winds and sea currents, as well as their seasonal variations. [18]

Maury's work enabled seafarers to shorten sailing time considerably, by simply taking better advantage of prevailing winds and sea currents. For instance, a journey from New York to Rio de Janeiro was reduced from 55 to 23 days, while the duration of a trip from Melbourne to Liverpool was halved, from 126 to 63 days. [18]

More recently, yacht racing has generated many innovations that have never been applied to commercial shipping. For example, in the 2017 America's Cup, the Emirates Team New Zealand introduced stationary bikes instead of hand cranks to power the hydraulic system that steers the boat.

Because our legs are stronger than our arms, pedal powered 'grinding' allows for quicker tacking and gybing in a race, but it could also be useful to reduce the required manpower for commercial sailing ships. [19]

Speed sailing records are also telling. The fastest sailboat in 1972 did not even reach 50 km/h, while the current record holder -- the Vestas Sailrocket 2 -- sailed at 121 km/h in 2012. While these types of ships are not practical to carry cargo, they could inspire other designs that are.

Wind & Solar Powered Trains
We could follow a similar approach for land-based transportation, in the form of wind and solar powered trains.

Like sailing boats, trains could be running whenever there is renewable energy available. Not by putting sails on trains, of course, but by running them on electricity made by solar PV panels or wind turbines along the tracks.

This would be an entirely new application of a centuries-old strategy to deal with variable energy sources, only made possible by the invention of electricity
Wind and solar powered trains would be an entirely new application of a centuries-old strategy to deal with variable energy sources.
Running cargo trains on renewable energy is a great use of intermittent wind power because they are usually operated at night, when wind power is often at its best and energy demand is at its lowest.

Furthermore, just like cargo ships, cargo trains already have unreliable schedules because they often sit stationary in train-yards for days, waiting to become fully loaded.

Even the speed of the trains could be regulated by the amount of renewable energy that is available, just as the wind speed determines the speed of a sailing ship. A similar approach could also work with other electrical transportation systems, such as trolleytrucks, trolleyboats or aerial ropeways.

Combining solar and wind powered cargo trains with solar and wind powered factories creates extra possibilities. For example, at first sight, solar or wind powered passenger trains appear to be impossible, because people are less flexible than goods.

If a solar powered train is not running or is running too slow, an appointment may have to be rescheduled at the last minute. Likewise, on cloudy days, few people would make it to the office.

However, this could be solved by using the same renewable power sources for factories and passenger trains. Solar panels along the railway lines could be sized for cloudy days, and thus guarantee a minimum level of energy for a minimum service of passenger trains (but no industrial production).

During sunny days, the extra solar power could be used to run the factories along the railway line, or to run extra passenger (or cargo) trains.

Consequences for Society: Consumption & Production
As we've seen, if industrial production and cargo transportation became dependent on the availability of renewable energy, we would still be able to produce a diverse range of consumer goods, and transport them all over the globe.

However, not all products would be available all the time. If I want to buy new shoes, I might have to wait for the right season to get them manufactured and delivered.

Production and consumption would depend on the weather and the seasons. Solar powered factories would have higher production rates in the summer months, while wind powered factories would have higher production rates in the winter months. Sailing seasons also need to be taken into account.
If I want to buy new shoes, I might have to wait for the right season to get them manufactured and delivered.
But running an economy on the rhythms of the weather doesn't necessarily mean that production and consumption rates would go down. If factories and cargo transportation adjust their energy use to the weather, they can use the full annual power production of wind turbines and solar panels.

Manufacturers could counter seasonal production shortages by producing items 'in season' and then stocking it close to consumers for sale during low energy periods.

In fact, the products themselves would become 'energy storage' in this scenario. Instead of storing energy to manufacture products in the future, we would manufacture products whenever there is energy available, and store the products for later sale instead.

However, seasonal production may well lead to lower production and consumption rates. Overproducing in high energy times requires large production facilities and warehouses, which would be underused for the rest of the year.

To produce cost-efficiently, manufacturers will need to make compromises. From time to time, these compromises will lead to product shortages, which in turn could encourage people to consider other solutions, such as repair and re-use of existing products, crafted products, DIY, or exchanging and sharing goods.

Consequences for the Workforce
Adjusting energy demand to energy supply also implies that the workforce adapts to the weather. If a factory runs on solar power, then the availability of power corresponds very well with human rhythms. The only downside is that workers would be free from work especially in winter and on cloudy days.

However, if a factory or a cargo train runs on wind power, then people will also have to work during the night, which is considered unhealthy. The upside is that they would have holidays in summer and on good weather days.

If a factory or a transportation system is operated by wind or solar energy alone, workers would also have to deal with uncertainty about their work schedules. Although we have much better weather forecasts than in pre-industrial times, it remains difficult to make accurate predictions more than a few days ahead.

However, it is not only renewable power plants that are now completely automated. The same goes for factories. The last century has seen increasing automation of production processes, based on computers and robots.

So-called “dark factories” are already completely automated (they need no lights because there is nobody there).
It's not only renewable power plants that are now completely automated. The same goes for factories.
If a factory has no workers, it doesn't matter when it's running. Furthermore, many factories already run for 24 hours per day, partly operated by millions of night shift workers. In these cases, night work would actually decrease because these factories will only run through the night if it's windy.

Finally, we could also limit the main share of industrial manufacturing and railway transportation to normal working hours, and curtail the oversupply during the night. In this scenario, we would simply have less material goods and more holidays.

On the other hand, there would be an increased need for other types of jobs, like craftsmanship and sailing.

What About the Internet?
In conclusion, industrial manufacturing and cargo transportation -- both over land and over sea -- could be run almost entirely on variable renewable power sources, with little need for energy storage, transmission networks, balancing capacity or overbuilding renewable power plants.

In contrast, the modern high-tech approach of matching energy supply to energy demand at all times requires a lot of extra infrastructure which makes renewable power production a complex, slow, expensive and unsustainable undertaking.

Adjusting energy demand to supply would make switching to renewable energy much more realistic than it is today. There would be no curtailment of energy, and no storage and transmission losses. All the energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines would be used on the spot and nothing would go to waste.

Admittedly, adjusting energy demand to energy supply can be less straightforward in other sectors. Although the internet could be entirely operated on variable power sources -- using asynchronous networks and delay-tolerant software -- many newer internet applications would then disappear.

At home, we probably can’t expect people to sit in the dark or not to cook meals when there is no renewable energy. Likewise, people will not come to hospitals only on sunny days. In such instances, there is a larger need for energy storage or other measures to counter an intermittent power supply.

That's for a next post.

[1] Lucas, Adam. Wind, Water, Work: Ancient and Medieval Milling Technology. Vol. 8. Brill, 2006.

[2] Reynolds, Terry S. Stronger than a hundred men: a history of the vertical water wheel. Vol. 7. JHU Press, 2002.

[3] Hills, Richard Leslie. Power from wind: a history of windmill technology. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[4] Paine, Lincoln. The sea and civilization: a maritime history of the world. Atlantic Books Ltd, 2014.

[5] One of the earliest large hydropower dams was the Cento dam in Italy (1450), which was 71 m long and almost 6 m high. By the 18th century, the largest dams were up to 260 m long and 25 m high, with power canals leading to dozens of water wheels. [2]

[6] Although windmills had all kinds of internal mechanisms to adapt to sudden changes in wind speed and wind direction, wind power had no counterpart for the dam in water power.

[7] This explains why windmills became especially important in regions with dry climates, in flat countries, or in very cold areas, where water power was not available. In countries with good water resources, windmills only appeared when the increased demand for power created a crisis because the best waterpower sites were already occupied.

[8] Tide mills were technically similar to water mills, but they were more reliable because the sea is less prone to dry out, freeze over, or change its water level than a river.

[9] Sieferle, Rolf Peter, and Michael P. Osman. The subterranean forest: energy systems and the industrial revolution. Cambridge: White Horse Press, 2001.

[10] Freese, Stanley. Windmills and millwrighting. Cambridge University Press, 1957

[11] Wailes, Rex. The English windmill. London, Routledge & K. Paul, 1954

[12] The global wind pattern is complemented by regional wind patterns, such as land and sea breezes. The Northern Indian Ocean has semi-annually reversing Monsoon winds. These blow from the southwest from June to November, and from the northeast from December to May. Maritime trade in the Indian Ocean started earlier than in other seas, and the established trade routes were entirely dependent on the season.

[13] Jenkins, H. L. C. "Ocean passages for the world." The Royal Navy, Somerset (1973).

[14] Windmillers had to be alert to keep the gap between the stones constant however choppy the wind, and before the days of the centrifugal governor this was done by hand. The miller had to watch the power of the wind, to judge how much sail cloth to spread, and to be prepared to stop the mill under sail and either take in or let out more cloth, for there were no patent sails. And before the fantail came into use, he had to watch the direction of the wind as well and keep the sails square into the wind's eye. [11]

[15] Apart from electricity, the Industrial Revolution also brought us compressed air, water under pressure, and improved mechanical power transmission, which can all be valuable alternatives for electricity in certain applications.

[16] A similar distinction was made in the old days. For example, when spinning cloth, a constant speed was required to avoid gearwheels hunting and causing the machines to deliver thick and thin parts in rovings or yarns. [3] That's why spinning was only mechanised using water power, which could be stored to guarantee a more regular power supply, and not wind power. Wind power was also unsuited for processes like papermaking, mine haulage, or operating blast furnace bellows in ironworks.

[17] Very short-term energy storage is required for many mechanical production processes running on variable power sources, in order to smooth out small and sudden variations in energy supply. Such mechanical systems were already used in pre-industrial windmills.

[18] Leighly, J. (ed) (1963) The Physical Geography of the Sea and its Meteorology by Matthew Fontaine Maury, 8th Edition, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. Cited by Knowles, R.D. (2006) "Transport shaping space: the differential collapse of time/space", Journal of Transport Geography, 14(6), pp. 407-425.

[19] Rival teams rejected pedal power because they feared radical change, says Team New Zealand designer. The Telegraph, May 24, 2017.


Puerto Rico is our future

SUBHEAD: We should think about the kind of society is sustainable and resilient in times of increasing vulnerability to disasters of all kinds.

By Richard Heinberg on 28 September 2017 for Post Carbon Institute-

Image above: Aerial photo of damage from Maria to hillside homes in Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria destroyed much of the infrastructure of the island. From original article.

[IB Publisher's note: Inike did not do as much damage to Kauai as hurricanes Irma and Maria (two category 4 storms) did to Puerto Rico in the last few weeks. Needless to say, Kauai pulled together and overcame major destruction to the island. But that was a different economic and environmental era. As James Kunstler pointed out here (, there is little to no backup support left.]

News reports tell of the devastation left by a direct hit from Category 4 Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Ricans already coping with damage from Hurricane Irma, which grazed the island just days before, were slammed with an even stronger storm on September 20, bringing more than a foot of rain and maximum sustained winds of at least 140 miles per hour.

There is still no electricity—and likely won’t be for weeks or months—in this U.S. territory of 3.4 million people, many of whom also lack running water. Phone and internet service is likewise gone. Nearly all of Puerto Rico’s greenery has been blown away, including trees and food crops.

A major dam is leaking and threatening to give way, endangering the lives of tens of thousands. This is a huge unfolding tragedy. But it’s also an opportunity to learn lessons, and to rebuild very differently.

Climate change no doubt played a role in the disaster, as warmer water generally feeds stronger storms. This season has seen a greater number of powerful, land-falling storms than the past few years combined. Four were Category 4 or 5, and three of them made landfall in the U.S.—a unique event in modern records.

Puerto Rico is also vulnerable to rising seas: since 2010, average sea levels have increased at a rate of about 1 centimeter (0.4 inches) per year. And the process is accelerating, leading to erosion that’s devastating coastal communities.

Even before the storms, Puerto Rico’s economy was in a tailspin. It depends largely on manufacturing and the service industry, notably tourism, but the prospects for both are dismal.

The island’s population is shrinking as more and more people seek opportunities in the continental U.S.. Puerto Rico depends entirely on imported energy sources—including bunker oil for some of its electricity production, plus natural gas and coal.

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is a law unto itself, a monopoly that appears mismanaged (long close to bankruptcy), autocratic, and opaque. Over 80 percent of food is imported and the rate of car ownership is among the highest in the world (almost a car for each islander!).

To top it off, Puerto Rico is also in the throes of a debt crisis. The Commonwealth owes more than $70 billion to creditors, with an additional $50 billion in pension obligations.

Puerto Rico’s government has been forced to dramatically cut spending and increase taxes; yet, despite these drastic measures, the situation remains bleak. In June 2015, Governor Padilla announced the Commonwealth was in a “death spiral” and that “the debt is not payable.”

On August 3 of the same year, Puerto Rico defaulted on a $58 million bond payment. The Commonwealth filed for bankruptcy in May of this year after failing to raise money in capital markets.

A shrinking economy, a government unable to make debt payments, and a land vulnerable to rising seas and extreme weather: for those who are paying attention, this sounds like a premonition of global events in coming years.

World debt levels have soared over the past decade as central banks have struggled to recover from the 2008 global financial crisis. Climate change is quickly moving from abstract scenarios to grim reality.

World economic growth is slowing (economists obtusely call this “secular stagnation”), and is likely set to go into reverse as we hit the limits to growth that were first discussed almost a half-century ago. Could Puerto Rico’s present presage our own future?

If so, then we should all care a great deal about how the United States responds to the crisis in Puerto Rico. This could be an opportunity to prepare for metaphoric (and occasionally real) storms bearing down on everyone.

It’s relatively easy to give advice from the sidelines, but I do so having visited Puerto Rico in 2013, where I gave a presentation in the Puerto Rican Senate at the invitation of the Center for Sustainable Development Studies of the Universidad Metropolitana. There I warned of the inevitable end of world economic growth and recommended that Puerto Rico pave the way in preparing for it. The advice I gave then seems even more relevant now:
  • Invest in resilience. More shocks are on the way, so build redundancy in critical systems and promote pro-social behavior so that people’s first reflex is to share and to help one another.
  • Promote local food. Taking advantage of the island’s climate, follow the Cuban model for incentivizing careers in farming and increase domestic food production using permaculture methods.
  • Treat population decline as an opportunity. Lots of people will no doubt leave Puerto Rico as a result of the storm. This represents a cultural and human loss, but it also opens the way to making the size of the population of the island more congruent with its carrying capacity in terms of land area and natural resources.
  • Rethink transportation. The island’s current highway-automobile dominance needs to give way to increased use of bicycles, and to the provision of streetcars and and light rail. An interim program of ride- and car-sharing could help with the transition.
  • Repudiate debt. Use aid money to build a sharing economy, not to pay off creditors. Take a page from the European “degrowth” movement. An island currency and a Commonwealth bank could help stabilize the economy.
  • Build a different energy system. Patching up the old PREPA electricity generating and distribution system would be a waste of money. That system is both corrupt and unsustainable. Instead, invest reconstruction funds in distributed local renewables and low-power infrastructure.
These recommendations met with a polite response in 2013, but there was little subsequent evidence of a dramatic change of direction. That’s understandable: people tend to maintain their status quo as long as it’s viable. However, when people are in dire straits, they’re more likely to listen to unconventional advice. And when denial is no longer possible, they’re more likely to face reality.

In her book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein described how free-market policy wonks and neoliberal economists—and the financial and corporate interests that back them—look for moments of crisis as opportunities to trap countries in a cycle of massive infrastructure projects, rising consumption, and debt. No doubt neoliberal vultures are readying to swoop down on Puerto Rico at this very moment with their brand of “aid.”

The government and people of the island will have some important choices to make in the coming weeks—whether to double down on infrastructure investments that lock them into a brittle and unsustainable way of life, or to break out in a different direction. They might take inspiration from Greensburg, Kansas—a town that was devastated by a powerful tornado in 2007 and chose to rebuild as “the greenest town in America.”

Obviously, the Puerto Rican people have immediate needs for food, water, fuel, and medical care.

We mainland Americans should be doing all we can to make sure that help reaches those in the throes of crisis. But Puerto Ricans—all Americans, indeed all humans—should be thinking longer-term about what kind of society is sustainable and resilient in this time of increasing vulnerability to disasters of all kinds.


The Terror of Deep Time

SUBHEAD: It's vital for humans understand the story in which we play our small but significant part.

By John Michael Greer on 21 September 2017 in Resilience -

Image above: The Andromeda galaxy behind a silhouette of mountains. From original article.

Back in the 1950s, sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote cogently about what he called “crackpot realism”—the use of rational, scientific, utilitarian means to pursue irrational, unscientific, or floridly delusional goals. It was a massive feature of American life in Mills’ time, and if anything, it’s become more common since then.

Since it plays a central role in the corner of contemporary culture I want to discuss this week, I want to put a few moments into discussing where crackpot realism comes from, and how it wriggles its way into the apple barrel of modern life and rots the apples from skin to core.

Let’s start with the concept of the division of labor.

One of the great distinctions between a modern industrial society and other modes of human social organization is that in the former, very few activities are taken from beginning to end by the same person.

A woman in a hunter-gatherer community, as she is getting ready for the autumn tuber-digging season, chooses a piece of wood, cuts it, shapes it into a digging stick, carefully hardens the business end in hot coals, and then puts it to work getting tubers out of the ground.

Once she carries the tubers back to camp, what’s more, she’s far more likely than not to take part in cleaning them, roasting them, and sharing them out to the members of the band.

A woman in a modern industrial society who wants to have potatoes for dinner, by contrast, may do no more of the total labor involved in that process than sticking a package in the microwave.

Even if she has potatoes growing in a container garden out back, say, and serves up potatoes she grew, harvested, and cooked herself, odds are she didn’t make the gardening tools, the cookware, or the stove she uses.

That’s division of labor: the social process by which most members of an industrial society specialize in one or another narrow economic niche, and use the money they earn from their work in that niche to buy the products of other economic niches.

Let’s say it up front: there are huge advantages to the division of labor. It’s more efficient in almost every sense, whether you’re measuring efficiency in terms of output per person per hour, skill level per dollar invested in education, or what have you.

What’s more, when it’s combined with a social structure that isn’t too rigidly deterministic, it’s at least possible for people to find their way to occupational specialties for which they’re actually suited, and in which they will be more productive than otherwise.

Yet it bears recalling that every good thing has its downsides, especially when it’s pushed to extremes, and the division of labor is no exception.

Crackpot realism is one of the downsides of the division of labor. It emerges reliably whenever two conditions are in effect.

The first condition is that the task of choosing goals for an activity is assigned to one group of people and the task of finding means to achieve those goals is left to a different group of people.

The second condition is that the first group needs to be enough higher in social status than the second group that members of the first group need pay no attention to the concerns of the second group.

Consider, as an example, the plight of a team of engineers tasked with designing a flying car. People have been trying to do this for more than a century now, and the results are in: it’s a really dumb idea.

It so happens that a great many of the engineering features that make a good car make a bad aircraft, and vice versa; for instance, an auto engine needs to be optimized for torque rather than speed, while an aircraft engine needs to be optimized for speed rather than torque.

Thus every flying car ever built—and there have been plenty of them—performed just as poorly as a car as it did as a plane, and cost so much that for the same price you could buy a good car, a good airplane, and enough fuel to keep both of them running for a good long time.

Engineers know this.

Still, if you’re an engineer and you’ve been hired by some clueless tech-industry godzillionaire who wants a flying car, you probably don’t have the option of telling your employer the truth about his pet project—that is, that no matter how much of his money he plows into the project, he’s going to get a clunker of a vehicle that won’t be any good at either of its two incompatible roles—because he’ll simply fire you and hire someone who will tell him what he wants to hear.

Nor do you have the option of sitting him down and getting him to face what’s behind his own unexamined desires and expectations, so that he might notice that his fixation on having a flying car is an emotionally charged hangover from age eight, when he daydreamed about having one to help him cope with the miserable, bully-ridden public school system in which he was trapped for so many wretched years.

So you devote your working hours to finding the most rational, scientific, and utilitarian means to accomplish a pointless, useless, and self-defeating end. That’s crackpot realism.

You can make a great party game out of identifying crackpot realism—try it sometime—but I’ll leave that to my more enterprising readers.

What I want to talk about right now is one of the most glaring examples of crackpot realism in contemporary industrial society. Yes, we’re going to talk about space travel again.

No question, a fantastic amount of scientific, technological, and engineering brilliance went into the quest to insert a handful of human beings for a little while into the lethal environment of deep space and bring them back alive.

Visit one of the handful of places on the planet where you can get a sense of the sheer scale of a Saturn V rocket, and the raw immensity of the effort that put a small number of human bootprints on the Moon is hard to miss. What’s much easier to miss is the whopping irrationality of the project itself.

(I probably need to insert a parenthetical note here. Every time I blog about the space program, I can count on fielding at least one comment from some troll who insists that the Moon landings never happened.

It so happens that I’ve known quite a few people who worked on the Apollo project; some of them have told me their stories and shown me memorabilia from what was one of the proudest times of their lives; and given a choice between believing them, and believing some troll who uses a pseudonym to hide his identity but can’t hide his ignorance of basic historical and scientific facts, well, let’s just say the troll isn’t going to come in first place. Nor is his comment going to go anywhere but the trash. ‘Nuf said.)

Outer space simply isn’t an environment where human beings can survive for long.

It’s near-perfect vacuum at a temperature a few degrees above absolute zero; it’s full of hard radiation streaming out from the huge unshielded fusion reactor at the center of our solar system; it’s also got chunks of rock, lots of them, whizzing through it at better than rifle-bullet speeds; and the human body is the product of two billion years of evolutionary adaptation to environments that have the gravity, atmospheric pressure, temperature ranges, and other features that are found on the Earth’s surface and, as far as we know, nowhere else in the universe.

A simple thought experiment will show how irrational the dream of human expansion into space really is.

Consider the harshest natural environments on this planet—the stark summits of the Himalayas; the middle of the East Antarctic ice sheet in winter; the bleak Takla Makan desert of central Asia, the place caravans go to die; the bottom of the Marianas Trench, where the water pressure will reduce a human body to paste in seconds.

Nowhere in the solar system, or on any of the exoplanets yet discovered by astronomers, is there a place that’s even as well suited to human life as the places I’ve just named.

Logically speaking, before we try to settle the distant, airless, radiation-blasted deserts of Mars or the Moon, wouldn’t it make sense first to build cities on the Antarctic ice or in the lightless depths of the ocean?

With one exception, in fact, every one of the arguments that has been trotted out to try to justify the settlement of Mars can be applied with even more force to the project of settling Antarctica.

In both cases, you’ve got a great deal of empty real estate amply stocked with mineral wealth, right? Antarctica, though, has a much more comfortable climate than Mars, not to mention abundant supplies of water and a breathable atmosphere, both of which Mars lacks.

Furthermore, it costs a lot less to get your colonists to Antarctica, they won’t face lethal irradiation on the way there, and there’s at least a chance that you can rescue them if things go very wrong.

If in fact it made any kind of sense to settle Mars, the case for settling Antarctica would be far stronger.

So where are the grand plans, lavishly funded by clueless tech-industry godzillionaires, to settle Antarctica? Their absence shows the one hard fact about settling outer space that next to nobody is willing to think about: it simply doesn’t make sense.

The immense financial and emotional investments we’ve made in the notion of settling human beings on other planets or in outer space itself would be Exhibit A in a museum of crackpot realism.

This is where the one exception I mentioned above comes in—the one argument for settling Mars that can’t also be made for settling Antarctica. This is the argument that a Martian colony is an insurance policy for our species.

If something goes really wrong on Earth, the claim goes, and human beings die out here, having a settlement on Mars gives our species a shot at survival.

Inevitably, given the present tenor of popular culture, you can expect to hear this sort of logic backed up by embarrassingly bad arguments. I’m thinking, for example, of a rant by science promoter Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who likes to insist that dinosaurs are extinct today because they didn’t have a space program.

We’ll assume charitably that Tyson spent long nights stargazing in his teen years, and so tended to doze off during his high school biology classes; no doubt that’s why he missed three very obvious facts about dinosaurs.

The first is that they were the dominant life forms on land for well over a hundred million years, which is a good bit longer than our species shows any likelihood of being able to hang on; the second is that the vast majority of dinosaur species went extinct for ordinary reasons—there were only a very modest number of dinosaur species around when the Chicxulub meteorite came screaming down out of space to end the Cretaceous Period; and the third is that dinosaurs aren’t extinct—we call them birds nowadays, and in terms of number of species, rates of speciation, and other standard measures of evolutionary vigor, they’re doing quite a bit better than mammals just now.

Set aside the bad logic and the sloppy paleontology, though, and the argument just named casts a ruthlessly clear light on certain otherwise obscure factors in our contemporary mindset.

The notion that space travel gets its value as a way to avoid human extinction goes back a long ways. I recall a book by Italian journalist Oriana Falacci, compiling her interviews with leading figures in the space program during its glory days; she titled it If The Sun Dies, after the passionate comment along these lines by one of her interviewees.

Behind this, in turn, lies one of the profound and usually unmentioned fears that shapes the modern mind: the terror of deep time.

There’s a profound irony in the fact that the geologists who first began to figure out the true age of the Earth lived in western Europe in the early nineteenth century, when most people believed that the world was only some six thousand years old.

There have been plenty of cultures in recorded history that had a vision of time expansive enough to fit the facts of geological history, but the cultures of western Europe and its diaspora in the Americas and Australasia were not among them.

Wedded to literalist interpretations of the Book of Genesis, and more broadly to a set of beliefs that assigned unique importance to human beings, the people who faced the first dim adumbrations of the vastness of Earth’s long history were utterly unprepared for the shock, and even less ready to have the first unnerving guesses that the Earth might be millions of years old replaced by increasingly precise measurements that gave its age in the billions of years, and that of the universe in the trillions.

The brutal nature of the shock that resulted shouldn’t be underestimated.

A society that had come to think of humanity as creation’s darlings, dwelling in a universe with a human timescale, found itself slammed facefirst into an unwanted encounter with the vast immensities of past and future time. That encounter had a great many awkward moments.

The self-defeating fixation of evangelical Christians on young-Earth creationism can be seen in part as an attempt to back away from the unwelcome vista of deep time; so is the insistence, as common outside Christian churches as within them, that the world really will end sometime very soon and spare us the stress of having to deal with the immensity of the future.

For that matter, I’m not sure how many of my readers know how stunningly unwelcome the concept of extinction was when it was first proposed: if the universe was created for the benefit of human beings, as a great many people seriously argued in those days, how could there have been so many thousands of species that lived and died long ages before the first human being walked the planet?

Worse, the suspicion began to spread that the future waiting for humanity might not be an endless progression toward bigger and better things, as believers in progress insisted, or the end of the world followed by an eternity of bliss for the winning team, as believers in Christianity insisted, but extinction: the same fate as all those vanished species whose bones kept surfacing in geological deposits.

It’s in the nineteenth century that the first stories of human extinction appear on the far end of late Romanticism, just as the same era saw the first tales that imagined the history of modern civilization ending in decline and fall.

People read The Black Cloud and After London for the same rush of fascinated horror that they got from Frankenstein and Dracula, and with the same comfortable disbelief once the last page turned—but the same scientific advances that made the two latter books increasingly less believable made tales of humanity’s twilight increasingly more so.

It became fashionable in many circles to dismiss such ideas as mere misanthropy, and that charge still gets flung at anyone who questions current notions of humanity’s supposed future in space. It’s a curious fact that I tend to field such comments from science fiction writers, more than from anyone else just now.

A few years ago, when I sketched out a fictive history of the next ten billion years that included human extinction millions of years from now, SF writer David Brin took time out of his busy schedule to denounce it as “an infuriating paean to despair.” Last month’s post on the worlds that never were, similarly, fielded a spluttering denunciation by S.M. Stirling.

It was mostly a forgettable rehash of the standard arguments for an interstellar future—arguments, by the way, that could be used equally well to justify continued faith in perpetual motion—but the point I want to raise here is that Stirling’s sole reaction to Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant fictional critique of the interstellar-travel mythos, was to claim dismissively that Robinson must have suffered an attack of misanthropy.

Some of my readers may remember Verruca Salt, the archetypal spoiled brat in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

When her father didn’t give her whatever she happened to want, her typical response was to shriek, “You don’t love me!” I think of that whenever somebody trots out the accusation of misanthropy in response to any realistic treatment of the limits that will shape the human future.

It’s not misanthropy to point out that humanity isn’t going to outlast the sun or leap breezily from star to star; it’s simple realism, just as reminding someone that they will inevitably die is an expression not of hatred but of common sense.

You, dear reader, will die someday. So will I, and so will every other human being.

That fact doesn’t make our lives meaningless; quite the contrary, it’s when we come to grips with the fact of our own mortality that we have our best shot at achieving not only basic maturity, but that condition of reflective attention to meaning that goes by the name of wisdom.

In exactly the same way, recognizing that humanity will not last forever—that the same Earth that existed and flourished long before our species came on the scene will exist and flourish long after our species is gone—might just provide enough of a boost of wisdom to help us back away from at least some of the more obviously pigheaded ways we’re damaging the biosphere of the only planet on which we can actually live.

There’s something else to be found in the acceptance of our collective mortality, though, and I’m considering exploring it in detail over the months ahead.

Grasp the fact that our species is a temporary yet integral part of the whole system we call the biosphere of the Earth, and it becomes a good deal easier to see that we are part of a story that didn’t begin with us, won’t end with us, and doesn’t happen to assign us an overwhelmingly important role.

Traumatic though this may be for the Verruca Saltish end of humanity, with its distinctly overinflated sense of importance, there’s much to be gained by ditching the tantrums, coming to terms with our decidedly modest place in the cosmos, and coming to understand the story in which we play our small but significant part.


In the Murk

SUBHEAD: Puerto Rico is back in the 18th Century, minus the practical skills for living that way of life.

By James Kunstler on 22 September 2017 for -

Image above: Before dawn a police car patrols as the hurricane hits in Fajardo, in northeast Puerto Rico. From (

Welcome to America’s first experiment in the World Made By Hand lifestyle. Where else is it going? Watch closely.

Ricardo Ramos, the director of the beleaguered, government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, told CNN Thursday that the island’s power infrastructure had been basically “destroyed” and will take months to come back

“Basically destroyed.” That’s about as basic as it gets civilization-wise.

Residents, Mr. Ramos said, would need to change the way they cook and cool off. For entertainment, old-school would be the best approach, he said. “It’s a good time for dads to buy a ball and a glove and change the way you entertain your children.”

Meaning, I guess, no more playing Resident Evil 7: Biohazard on-screen because you’ll be living it — though one wonders where will the money come from to buy the ball and glove? Few Puerto Ricans will be going to work with the power off.

And the island’s public finances were in disarray sufficient to drive it into federal court last May to set in motion a legal receivership that amounted to bankruptcy in all but name. The commonwealth, a US territory, was in default for $74 billion in bonded debt, plus another $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations.

So, Puerto Rico already faced a crisis pre-Hurricane Maria, with its dodgy electric grid and crumbling infrastructure: roads, bridges, water and sewage systems. Bankruptcy put it in a poor position to issue new bonds for public works which are generally paid for with public borrowing.

Who, exactly, would buy the new bonds? I hear readers whispering, “the Federal Reserve.” Which is a pretty good clue to understanding the circle-jerk that American finance has become.

Some sort of bailout is unavoidable, though President Trump tweeted “No Bailout for Puerto Rico” after the May bankruptcy proceeding. Things have changed and the shelf-life of Trumpian tweets is famously brief.

But the crisis may actually strain the ability of the federal government to pretend it can cover the cost of every calamity that strikes the nation — at least not without casting doubt on the soundness of the dollar.

And not a few bonafide states are also whirling around the bankruptcy drain: Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, Kentucky.

Image above: In daylight electricity poles and lines lay toppled on the road in Humacao in southeast  Puerto Rica. From (

Constitutionally states are not permitted to declare bankruptcy, though counties and municipalities can. Congress would have to change the law to allow it. But states can default on their bonds and other obligations. Surely there would be some kind of fiscal and political hell to pay if they go that route.

Nobody really knows what might happen in a state as big and complex as Illinois, which has been paying its way for decades by borrowing from the future. Suddenly, the future is here and nobody has a plan for it.

The case for the federal government is not so different. It, too, only manages to pay its bondholders via bookkeeping hocuspocus, and its colossal unfunded obligations for social security and Medicare make Illinois’ predicament look like a skipped car payment.

In the meantime — and it looks like it’s going to be a long meantime — Puerto Rico is back in the 18th Century, minus the practical skills and simpler furnishings for living that way of life, and with a population many times beyond the carrying capacity of the island in that era.

For instance, how many houses get their water from cisterns designed to catch rain runoff? How many communities across the island are walkable? (It looks like the gas stations will be down for quite a while.)

I’ve been there and much of the island is as suburbanized as New Jersey — thanks to the desire to be up-to-date with the mainland, and the willingness of officials to make it look like that.

We’re only two days past the Hurricane Maria’s direct hit on Puerto Rico and there is no phone communication across the island, so we barely know what has happened.

We’re weeks past Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, and news of the consequences from those two events has strangely fallen out of the news media. Where have the people gone who lost everything?

The news blackout is as complete and strange as the darkness that has descended on Puerto Rico.


Reject Neofeudalism for Feudalism

SUBHEAD: Neofeudalism is not a re-run of feudalism. It's a "new and improved", state-corporate version of indentured servitude.

By Charles Hugh Smith on 20 September 2017 for Of Two Minds -

Image above: Detail of a tapestry depicting feudal era agricultural work in "The Twelve Months of the Year" by Master of the Geneva Boccacci circa 1470AD. . From (

"Democracy" (i.e. political influence) and ownership of productive assets are the exclusive domains of the New Aristocracy.

I have often used the words neoliberal, neocolonial and neofeudal to describe our socio-economic-political status quo. Here are my shorthand descriptions of each term:
  1. Neoliberal: the commoditization / financialization of every asset, input (such as labor) and output of the economy; the privatization of the public commons, and the maximizing of private profits while costs and losses are socialized, i.e. transferred to the taxpayers.
  2. Neocolonial: the exploitation of the domestic populace using the same debt-servitude model used to subjugate, control and extract profits from overseas populations.
  3. Neofeudal: the indenturing of the workforce via debt and financial repression to a new Aristocracy; the disempowerment of the workforce into powerless debt-serfs.
Neofeudalism is a subtle control structure that is invisible to those who buy into the Mainstream Media portrayal of our society and economy. This portrayal includes an apparent contradiction: America is a meritocracy--the best and brightest rise to the top, if they have pluck and work hard-- and America is all about identity politics: whomever doesn't make it is a victim of bias.

Both narratives neatly ignore the neofeudal structure which disempowers the workforce in the public sphere and limits the opportunities to build capital outside the control of the state-corporate duopoly.

The book The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 shed some light on the transition to a feudal society and economy. While the author is a fine writer, the subject matter doesn't lend itself to light reading.

The transition from the Roman legacy of centralized governance (empire, monarchy, theocracy, etc.) to feudalism (governance by local lords / aristocracy) was complex and uneven, and the author takes pains to describe the process and many variations that arose in a highly fragmented post-Roman Europe.

(Note that the Eastern Roman Empire, a.k.a. Byzantine Empire, endured until 1453 AD. I've written often on both the western and eastern Roman empires:
The "Secret Sauce" of the Byzantine Empire: Stable Currency, Social Mobility
(September 1, 2016)

Don't Diss the Dark Ages
(October 26, 2016)

In the Footsteps of Rome: Is Renewal Possible?
(July 24, 2017) 
Neofeudalism is not a re-run of feudalism. It's a new and improved, state-corporate version of indentured servitude. The process of devolving from central political power to feudalism required the erosion of peasants' rights to own productive assets, which in an agrarian economy meant ownership of land.

Ownership of land was replaced with various obligations to the local feudal lord or monastery--free labor for time periods ranging from a few days to months; a share of one's grain harvest, and so on.
The other key dynamic of feudalism was the removal of the peasantry from the public sphere.

In the pre-feudal era (for example, the reign of Charlemagne), peasants could still attend public councils and make their voices heard, and there was a rough system of justice in which peasants could petition authorities for redress.

Of course peasants usually lost to the aristocracy and monasteries, but at least the avenue of redress was at least partially open. This presence in the public sphere was slammed shut in feudalism.

From the capitalist perspective, feudalism restricted serfs' access to cash markets where they could sell their labor or harvests.

The key feature of capitalism isn't just markets-- it's unrestricted ownership of productive assets--land, tools, workshops, and the social capital of skills, networks, trading associations, guilds, etc.

Our system is Neofeudal because the non-elites have no real voice in the public sphere, and ownership of productive capital is indirectly suppressed by the state-corporate duopoly.

Various studies have found that politicians ignore the bottom 99.5% who don't contribute to their campaigns or crony-capitalist wealth (five quick speeches for $200,000 each is $1 million. Rinse and repeat.)

The vast majority of incumbents are re-elected, as they leverage their power to vacuum up enormous sums of campaign contributions that then buy the compliance of a cowed public.

As for ownership of assets-- small business startups have been crushed by soaring costs, heavy regulations and the dominance of cartels and quasi-monopolies enforced by the state.

The so-called middle class owns little to no productive capital; what it "owns" is a house, which is ultimately a form of consumption.

I say "owns" for two reasons: one, most households have a mortgage, so their ownership is still contingent on making monthly payments to a lender, and two, the government collects property taxes on the home regardless of the owner's income or ability to pay.

Compare this to taxes levied on business income: if the business has no net income, it owes no taxes. Not so with property taxes--they are the modern equivalent of "rent" paid to the feudal lord.

Note that the aristocracy owns productive assets while the serfs own housing and debt. This is not a flaw in the system, it's a feature of the system.

Democracy (i.e. political influence) and ownership of productive assets are the exclusive domains of the New Aristocracy. This is Neofeudalism in a nutshell.
"Under a scientific dictator education will really work -- with the result that most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution." 
"The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative. The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him, the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free. That he is not free is apparent only to other people. His servitude is strictly objective."
- Aldous Huxley
Video interview of Aldous Huxley source of quotes (read the entire thread)