Monday, December 19, 2011

Deep Kimchi

Every year about this time, we're treated a stoned-out montage of images from the past year, of celebrities who have died (can't think of any...did Amy Winehouse die this past year?), natural disasters (expect plenty of Japan and Fukushima here), various images of wars and other crap. I don't know, maybe it's a handy milestone for some people, a chance to encapsulate all the pointless things they were ignoring for the past solar orbital period.

I think the highlight of the reel this year will be the death of Kim Jong-Il, the man who has ruled over North Korea in a way that would make even Vlad Tepes a little uneasy. Therefore, expect the year-end montage to include images of America's Least Visible War (tm) -- Korea -- to dominate the cycle this go-round. Cause of death was a heart-related ailment. I'll let everyone speculate on their own about the nature, timing, and cause of it.

I've always wondered about the North Koreans, though, what their actual state of mind is. The North Korean broadcasters announcing his death were in tears, but are they crying because there is a soldier offstage with a loaded Makarov who may prove to be their harshest critic, or did they genuinely love the man and buy into the vision of the world which has been pomulgated in North Korea since the late 40s, of the God-hood of the Korean "Maximum Leaders?"

We would be tempted, living in the West, which has generally been free of such delusions since the Enlightenment, to suggest it is fear that keeps people in line and spouting such nonsense, but the Middle Eastern nations have been run by people no less brutal than Kim Jong-Il and have seen one uprising and coup after another since the Cold War. Clearly, some people take to the brainwashing a little better than others, but David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter does a good job at offering insights into the North Korean mindset at the time, and probably up to the current day. Poor, rural, once a great kingdom, but now sandwiched between the warring powers of Russia, China, and Japan (and also the United States, to some degree, now), it's not hard to see how the nation became what it is, after taking a different road from South Korea.

I'm not sure that North Korea isn't necessarily not a blueprint for the future in some cases, especially as modern civilization continues down the road to a new dark age. The siege mentality due to circumstances beyond anyone's control, the tendency to elevate a person to a semi-divine status if they cleverly position themselves as a "savior," ignorance of the wider world as isolation grow and communication breaks down, all seem like ingredients which might be far more common in the future than anyone might guess at the moment.


I want to take a brief moment to wish all of you a Happy Holiday, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, and so on. Whatever we are going to have to deal with in the future, and whatever the circumstances of our daily lives, we need to reflect and remember that we still have reasons to celebrate and things to find joy in, even in the commonplace. Take a few days off from thinking about where we're going and just appreciate where we are and where we've been. Hug your spouse and your kids. Give your dog or cat an extra scratch behind the ears. Enjoy the days. The best to all of you and your families this year.

Monday, December 12, 2011


There's a few items of note in the news lately. One is that Europe has basically recommitted itself to the idea of the European Union, while Britain has increasingly chosen to turn away from it. People are afraid that the job losses we've suffered are permanent. The Republicans cannot really define themselves as a party of opposition, and Obama cannot define himself as a president. Hollywood is tanking again (gas for the week or go to a movie? You decide). Modern industrial civilization seems to have finally lost its way, getting someplace, and not knowing whether to go forward or backward, all the while not understanding that it's on an iceberg that is slowly melting away.

All bets are off, anything is fair game, the ball's in play. These cliches sound good until you realize that apathy is the order of the day. Nothing's getting solved, nothing is being really analyzed. Or, if you want, it can be boiled down to "If you're looking for meaning in the world that has been built over the last hundred or so years, you're wasting your time." It's with this that I want to keep moving forward and exploring where we are going as a civilization and what we do after we get there.

There's been a lot of talk between a slow-crash scenario and a fast-crash scenario in the past, revolving much around what people's perceptions and attitudes are, as much as anything to do with what case is actually mostly likely to happen. We look at the somewhat linear graph of oil availability, point to a definite peak, and assume that since we've gradually built up to this point, that we'll gradually descend on the other side of the slope, giving up plenty of time to make adjustments and see ourselves through.

The problem with this hypothesis is that it shows an ignorance of the theory of complex systems. While I don't want to go to deeply into it, complexity theory generally tends to consist of an energy input into a closed system, such as oil into the system of human civilization. It's a little like running a current through a tube filled with neon gas. All of a sudden, everything is very bright. We also see spontaneous order, in terms of people aligning their economic activity as part of this system.

What is sometimes forgotten, and what is most important for this discussion, is the idea of "feedback." Feedback, in this case, tends to function as a self-correcting mechanism that tends to sustain the system longer than it would potentially otherwise persist. Short-term substitutes are found for oil, there are other ways of working around it, maybe nuclear or solar picks up some of the slack. Think of it as borrowing on credit cards to not only keep the party going, but to build it up bigger and better.

The problem with complex systems is that they also collapse suddenly. The classic example is a traffic jam which creates itself for no reason, leaves us stuck for half an hour, then suddenly dissipates. We drive by, expecting to see construction or a wreck, or something, but there's nothing. It just happened and then it just vanished. (If you want to be really philosophical about it, the same thing is said of the beginning and end of the universe.) So, while we expect that we might be able to see an orderly "powering down," I think the odds of this happening are much, much lower than the odds of seeing everything come to a grinding halt in relatively quick succession.

What this really means for people is that anyone who tends to think that there's plenty of time to figure things out as they happen may be in for a rude shock as people begin to rapidly unplug themselves from the "complex system" and start looking for other ways to get by. In other words, there would be negative feedback on a massive scale, as opposed to the positive feedback (in terms of sustaining the system) that we've seen for years.

A possible example might be with the airlines. Business slows, and ticket prices rise due to fuel costs, so air travel slows. A person working for an airline as a mechanic, for example, might see the writing on the wall and look for something else to make a living at. In turn, this reduces the number of people working on planes, driving up the price for maintenance for existing planes, making air travel even harder to do. More airlines go under, demand for surviving ones rises, putting the ticket price out of reach, etc. This ignores the possibility of cheaper competition jumping into the game, but the barrier to entry for an airline startup is very high, especially when lending has dramatically slowed and investment cash is scarce.

This thinking is obviously open for debate, but it should color how we view the future and how we expect that things may play out. Obviously, an orderly transition to a sustainable world would be best. However, when you've built on top of a house of cards, it's not likely you're going to be taking the stairs out the front door when the winds begin to blow.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Foundation

I've decided to get away from writing about current events for a time and return to the original purpose of this blog, which was to prepare for the coming collapse, not on a short-term basis, but on a long-term generational survival basis. There is always an awful temptation to get caught up in the matters of the day and treat them with the utmost importance. Sometimes, it feels like there is a collective desire among all people to be commentators and "armchair quarterbacks." The problem here is that it leads to putting far too much weight on even the most trivial of news items as people search for the "key" to find meaning in all of the noise out there.

The reality is that we have past history and future change occur as glacial shifts in human action and activity. For example, if you really look at the origin of the problems of modern Europe, they lie in the inheritance custom of the Franks and how the descendants of Charlmagne split his empire into three chunks. Likewise, our decision -- as a collective global human civilization -- to go down the path of letting rates of material consumption define our "success," has doomed any chance for carrying that civilization into the future. We worship things instead of ideas, pastimes such as sports over weighty things such as philosophy. Ignorance is a virtue and learning is a vice. Don't believe me? Try quoting Plato or try talking about quantum physics around a demographically average group of people. Farting loudly is usually far more acceptable in most circles.

But it is the fact that we have chosen poorly that will eventually destroy modern civilization. The seeds are already planted, it's built on shifting sands (cheap energy availability), and it's a matter of time before we see the supports truly taken away. The paradox is that the more we struggle to preserve it through war and spending, the quicker the end approaches. If people have just stumbled across this blog and are not convinced, there is plenty of information available to confirm this and doesn't need to really be discussed further here.

Now, the question is what do we really see as the future, once the modern world has exhausted itself and died? What foundation do we really want to build on? Science, before it became another politicized cultural weapon, offered a glimpse into a world where objective empirical thought would reign. Philosophy, likewise, before it became a tool of oppression, offered a chance to redefine ourselves through ideas and reason.

Maybe this isn't a question which can easily be answered, but I think one thing comes to mind -- beginning to understand that we are not isolated and that survival likely depends on reversing the trend of becoming more fragmented and individualized. At this time of year, people give to charity because it is something which is supported by religions, or they help out in soup kitchens and so on for the same reasons, and many people find great satisfaction in doing this. The reasons they give when asked "why?" are water-thin, however, and are usually a barrage of platitudes.

I tend to think that the real reason is that by helping another person, we are forming a connection to them, when our actions and thoughts are no longer oriented solely around ourselves, but become part of a larger community. We instinctively know that this makes sense, that we don't exist as a vacuum, but as part of a larger world. The isolated animal becomes sick and despairing. The isolated human becomes much the same way, even if that isolation is self-chosen and occurs while surrounded by millions of people.

Instead of becoming isolated, we need to understand that the times which are coming are going to require us to once again become more than just ourselves. I've written some on the importance of this, but I think it's more essential now than ever. I don't mean become part of a group -- groups are always about benefitting one or two at the cost of the many, but I mean, build bridges. Don't be afraid to get to know people or work with them. There will be a time soon when we must do this to survive and it's better to start now.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Smoking Fires

It seems like the news comes all at once, when it comes. Predictably, there is the usual anecedotes about people rioting over game consoles on Black Friday, much like dwellers in the slums of Paris drinking spilled wine from the filthy gutter in A Tale of Two Cities. I guess the new twist this year is that some enterprising person actually thought to bring a can of pepper spray and let loose with it, getting my vote for "best evolutionary adaptation to a hostile environment." If this isn't good enough, we also have another sports molestation scandal with plenty of "juice" brewing, Chevy Volts catching fire, Miley Cyrus calling herself a "stoner," pick something.

No, there is plenty of real consequence going on in the world over the weekend, with sobering long-term consequences for the failing world system. The first item is the open and official anger in Pakistan over the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by a NATO helicopter, including a Major, something which has tossed gasoline onto the embers of an already-smoldering fire. The second big item on the radar is the resurgence of the Arab Spring, becoming the "Arab fall" as both nationalism and radicalism drive Arabic countries farther away from the sphere of the West. The Occupy Wall Street movement keeps hanging on, defying orders to clear their temporary living places. And, rounding up the hit parade is the continuing Eurozone crisis, where the latest big news was the failure of Germany's bond sale.

Each one of these alone would be a serious problem, but together, they are more signs that the high water mark of modern, global, industrial, civilization is now solidly in the rearview mirror. The chaos in the Arab world is likely to only increase as the true "clash of civilizations" begins -- the Western-backed military dictatorships on one hand versus the Islamist nationalists who have no real incentive to sell cheap oil to the West. What do we have to give them for it, anyway? Increasingly worthless currency? A non-stop flood of semi-pornographic pop culture broadcasting? Even if someone wanted to sell the oil, it would mean trying to get it out of the ground and then to a shipping terminal via vulnerable pipelines. Pakistan is obviously taking a different route, deliberately divorcing itself from NATO, the military expression of Western power.

Domestically, the fact that German bonds aren't finding buyers means that the question of the Western economy is no longer in doubt. There is no confidence in it. The only option is for Germany to begin to monetize its debt, which is when the economy and debt begins to eat itself. When this happened in the 1920s, Germany produced Hitler. Now that it's happening in 2011, we can probably expect Germany to shed the rest of Europe and start going its own way. The problem is, how can this happen once the price of oil doubles or even triples because of events elsewhere in the world? It seems more destined to collapse in on itself.

The Occupy Wall Street movement represents something else entirely. Domestic internal opposition to Western governments, especially in America, has in modern times largely been channeled through the political parties. The Tea Party largely was co-opted by the Republicans, but the OWS movement doesn't seem to have been scooped up by the Democrats in spite of their attempts to become "friendly" toward it. While it doen't really amount to much at the moment, it could very easily become a lightning rod if we see another crash, if the 15% unemployed begin to rally behind it, if gas spikes to seven or eight dollars a gallon (which would effectively collapse the U.S. economy overnight), or if the world market stops buying Treasury bonds, or half a dozen other scenarios. A movement which doesn't really have leaders and doesn't have anything much in common, except a jaundiced view of domestic politics, could grow very quickly and militantly, given the right circumstances.

In the coming weeks and months, I think we'll keep seeing more news items like these, but without much discussion of the significance behind them. The reality of the situation has been beyond the scope of the media, except in a few cases, and the willingness of governments to really tackle them. At a minimum, they are harbingers of a coming, drastic change of modern lifestyles, something that a world system which relies on keeping people comfortable and happy cannot come to grips with. At a maximum, they will in the end mean suffering and disorder on a scale that has not been seen before in human civilization.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stupor Committee

One of the signs, I think, of a civilization entering a Dark Age is the number of "WTF moments" that come up on a regular basis, when things happen that don't make sense, when you know the wheels are coming off. Step back some 1600 years and imagine yourself as an average person in the latter days of Imperial Rome: "Hey Sulla, did you hear that we're giving up Britain because we can't defend it any longer?" "WTF do you mean we can't defend something, Flavius? We're Romans!" Or, if you prefer, imagine being a Mayan during their collapse: "WTF do you mean we can't grow crops in the same soil we've been using for generations?" And so on.

We have quite a few of those ourselves on a regular basis now, but I think the cherry on top of the WTF sundae is the so-called "Deficit Reduction Super Committee" and the kabuki theatre surrounding it right now. Putting it in a little perspective, the DRSC is supposed to cut 1.2 trillion dollars over the next ten years. Doing the math, that's 120 billion dollars a year in cuts. Compared to a deficit which is at least 1.3 trillion dollars a year, it's essentially nothing. It's like being shot with 11 bullets instead of twelve. If this isn't a WTF? moment, I don't know what is.

Of course, there's the usual talk around deficit reduction, where everyone wants their turf guarded, when the special interests don't want to see their slice of the public pie cut. The problem here, of course, is that the pie itself is mostly air sandwiched between two crusts, the filling long ago having been removed and the lid of the pie carefully replaced so that no one would notice. It's now a system running on promises -- the promise of enough money coming into the treasury, the promise that people who have bought bad debt will get repaid, the promise that there is enough leadership and will to somehow patch a failing system that's running out of time. Everyone in the country wants their own benefits from it, but no one asks what it'll cost or if they should give up a little bit, along with everyone else.

So WTF? is anyone thinking that cutting out 120 billion a year in spending is going to make much of a difference in the ballooning debt and rapidly sinking dollar. And WTF? comes to mind when anyone thinks that it matters if these guys manage to agree to anything that will close that gap, while ignoring the rest of the monster deficit. It's like hiking 500 feet up the side of Mt. Everest and claiming that it's been conquered.

Speaking of Britain, we're a little like the Romans living there in 408 A.D. At some point, the nation is going to have to face bankruptcy and it's anyone's guess as to what happens then -- I think the conversation might be "WTF do they mean 'you're on your own'?"

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Jobs Picture

Ed left a good comment on my previous post, but it was unfortunately eaten by Blogger.  Since it is another insightful comment, I wanted to make sure it was posted:

"Off topic, but responding to the comment on my comment, I'm becoming interested in how peak oil will interact with what seems to be the increasing trend to eliminate jobs through automation (the mainstream bloggers I know alert to the latter are Stuart Sandiford (sp?) at Early Warning and Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, and I don't think they have digested the implications).

Labor saving devices at the beginning of the industrial revolution put craftsmen and agricultural smallholders out of work, but allowed households to improve their material quality of life through acquiring relatively cheap mass produced goods that they didn't have access to before.  Current labor solving technology does not really increase the goods and services available to a household, you still get one washing machine even if it now can be produced with two thirds fewer workers.  It makes these products cheaper, but there is no increase in production that will absorb the redundant workers.
Essentially the end result is the same number of goods produced with cheaper inputs, instead of more goods produced with cheaper inputs.  WIthout factoring in peak oil, in principle this should not be difficult for societies to adjust to, you just put most of the population on some form of welfare, which doesn't have to be that high because it now costs much less to have a middle class standard of living (but watch for population constraints).  In practice this takes a huge cultural adjustment.

Will rising resource costs halt or reverse the trend towards automation?  Or will have it have no effect on automation, but put the world in a Malthusian crisis where "surplus" members of society have to be eliminated?  I'm not sure, but again we are dealing with a wind down that will be difficult but tolerable as opposed to a nightmare."

This has been a line of inquiry that has interested me for a while, as well.  I think the key point is a lack of effective management of social trends in modern society.  We don't have the political will to identify the crisis and the need to plan for the coming transition is sorely absent from any kind of conversation on what direction society is taking. 

The ideas of "structural unemployment" and "jobs that are never coming back" are probably two early warning signs of what direction we can expect things to take.  By extension, the people who held these surplus jobs also seem to be surplus, themselves.  I think the first time this was really addressed was when Walter Reuther was shown a machine that could make some union auto workers' jobs obsolete.  Reuther responded by asking how many cars those machines would buy? 

I tend to think that the same factors which reverse automation (unpayable debt, rising resource costs, etc) will simaltaneously wipe out the ability of nation-states to maintain a working entitlements system.  In turn, this will sharply cut the effective cost of labor again (which is itself largely falling -- here is the BLS report).  At some point, it will become cost-effective for those who still have some measure of wealth to hire large number of menial workers, not unlike what was the case in 19th century England where urban populations ballooned with no attendant expansion in available work. 

Also, I wrote a post on this a while back, with what I thought were three trends that people might undertake in response to having no work and few options.  I should note that I don't mean to romanticize or idealize any of them, but that they seem to be likely once the welfare checks stop coming and people need to find some way to keep a roof over their heads.

Again, thanks for the good comment, and it is something to start looking for while sifting through the news.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Guns of August

It's been a while since I've posted anything here, mostly for the reason that every time I sat down to write something about the ongoing Euro crisis, which is probably the most significant event in world history since the fall of the Berlin Wall, things changed and I felt like it was impossible to really get a clear picture of where things were going.  However, after seeing the news percolate over the last couple of months, I think it's possible to figure out where we're going with this.  I'll skip the drum roll and the dramatic build-up and get straight to the point about it -- what we're seeing the Eurozone is the political class being unable to find a way out of the crisis because there is no way out of the crisis. 

It's a little like hanging from a tree branch on the side of a cliff, with a hundred foot drop below you and a rabid grizzly bear above you.  You can either climb up and get eaten, fall to your death below, or hope for some kind of miracle.  Or, in Europe's case, you can throw the PIIGS under the bus and destroy any lasting chance at recreating the sense of Pan-Europeanism that died with World War One, you can watch the currency get detroyed, or you can hang on and hope that some economic miracle happens between now and inevitability. 

I don't know if it's a lack of leadership, or a lack of will to simply get on with pulling the plug and figuring out what happens afterwards.  The rotation of national leaders is about as effective as changing the coach on a sports team where everything else in the franchise (and perhaps league) is horribly broken.  Do people think that ousting Berlosconi will magically make Italian debt turn into butterflies?  Do they think that new blood is going to prove any thicker than the old? 

Unfortunately, it's not all that hard to see where this is eventually going to lead.  While it probably wasn't mentioned much during the formation of the EU, one thing that has always been implicit in the idea of a united Euope is that it would effectively mean an end to the fratricidal wars which have wracked the continent for millenia.  After all, how can you go to war with someone who shares your currency, whose economy is tied to yours, and whose survival depends on your survival as well? 
Sadly, a stake the size of Transylvania is about to be plunged into the heart of this idea.  Pundits have made some light of the grumblings of Germans about Greeks and vice-versa.  People who have a poor grasp and sense of history don't really understand the size of the colliding mountains behind these small, initial sparks.  Southern Europe has always been in seen to be the ancient, cultured part, Northern Europe to be the hard-working economic giant.  What happens to the idea of European unity when bank runs ensue and it once again takes a wheelbarrow full of marks euros to buy a loaf of bread? 

The old scores to settle -- which were shelved first in the face of the Soviet Threat, then for the promise of United Europe, are bound to reassert themselves as people first look for someone to blame, then realize that the pie is shrinking and those who aren't willing use force to take their share aren't going to have any left at all.  Add to this the pressures brought on by Peak Oil, environmental damage, overpopulation, the clash of cultures, the clash of ideals, pick something, and it's not really crazy to talk to think that we'll hear the Guns of August once again in our lifetimes, maybe even this decade. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Old Fashioned

For those of you who have read James Kunstler's Witch of Hebron, you'll already be familiar with a certain section of the book, but for those who haven't, I'll briefly detail a small part of the story (and leave out spoilers, as it's quite a good read).  As part of some other action in the story, a carbon fiber fly rod and modern spinning reel get broken beyond repair, with one of the characters reminiscing about how it represented the height of materials engineering and would probably never be duplicated again. 

That Mr. Kunstler included this passage speaks a lot to his true grasp of what collapse really means, and serves as a reminder of what we stand to lose once the process really accelerates and the things we have built can't really be replaced easily, if at all.  Take not just fly rods, but consider the idea of not being able to go into a Wal Mart or Bass Pro any longer, and buy your choice of outdoor equipment for those adventures into the RV park campground.  Or, also consider that your outdoor adventures are going to be a whole lot rougher in the future than plugging in a bug zapper and reaching into the cooler for a beer. 

Our ancestors in America -- both native and colonial -- faced the problems of outdoor travel and survival, and often thrived, in spite of rough conditions, while making use of the materials around them and often being forced to be relatively self-sufficient out of necessity, not choice.  Imagine taking a trip cross-country on horseback, or on foot, when roads were little more than muddy wagon-trails, when the idea of a hotel hadn't even been considered yet, and you have to carry your supplies with you on your back, not in the trunk of your car.  However, through the ages, a store of mythology and assumption have been built up around the actions these people took, and how they lived, to where real outdoor survival has taken on something of a surreal veneer at times.

Back in the 40s, one writer, Ellsworth Jaeger (who was also a college instructor on these topics), seeing that there was an increasing interest in people getting back to the outdoors as a reponse to the horrors of World War 2, set out to write a guide called Wildwood Wisdom (here on Amazon) on how things were done back before technology began to affect outdoor life, and is a contrast to other works which assume that the reader has at least some access to modern technology, or isn't dealing with a long-term survival situation.  Instead, his work focuses on life at the point in time right before the West began to really be tamed, when there were still plenty of people who lived in a style that hadn't drastically changed for thousands of years. 

Just as an example, there is plenty of information on how to craft low-tech outdoor clothing, and how it was done back in the pre-industrial period, even including how to lay out a pattern for a buckskin jacket, or a shirt made from a wool blanket.  Other chapters include information on cooking, foraging, shelter, etc, but from the perspective of how it was really done, not someone's modern reinterpretation of how they think it might have been done -- or should have been done.  Even more important, Jaeger's writing focused on day-in and day-out life, not emergency survival situations that most books are focused toward. 

There have been a number of books on the subject written over the years, but I'm not aware of any that have been as comprehensive and down to the basics as Jaeger, or had as much of a focus on the practical daily life skills that people would have practiced away from the "civilization" of the time.  While the Leibowitz Society advocates and practice preserving ideas from the modern age, such as cosmology and higher mathematics, the other focus is on the ability of people to survive from day to day in rough conditions, making a book like this invaluable for anyone who sees the collapse coming and is working to prepare for it.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Delusional Thinking

Normally, I spend some time thinking about my posts and trying not to react off-the-cuff to items in the news and statements by public figures, as these just exist in passing in the grand scheme of things, but I heard a radio talk show host today railing against the idea of windmills and how foolish "green" (renewable) energy was to pursue, when fossil fuels were much cheaper and packed more energy, and could provide energy for 1/4 the cost.

Well, that's true for right now, but I can also go outside without a coat on today and not worry about freezing to death.  What about the future?

Really, what this represents is just the modern incarnation of fable of the grasshopper and the ant, and a stark reminder of how intellectually bankrupt most "mainstream" thinking has become.  Yes, we can use fossil fuels.  Yes, it is cheaper, more efficient, and packs more concentrated energy than solar, wind, tidal, etc.  It's more portable. long is it going to last?  This is such a simple concept -- if we use it up, it's gone.  It's that easy to figure out.

I wish I could capture the tone of the host, the sheer arrogance, the scorn at the suggestion of exploring things other than fossil fuels.  At least admit that they won't last forever...people raise their children with the idea of making them responsible adults and contributing something of value to the world, but why don't they take those same ideals and embrace the idea of guiding society and human civilization to be responsible and of benefit to future generations?

Americans take pride in the feat of their ancestors -- freeing the nation from the Royal yoke of England.  We take pride in electing our leaders.  However, there has long been a small minority of people who think we would be better off with a king or queen, because then the leader of the nation would have an incentive to pass on an intact nation to their heirs.  While this is probably just a fantasy, the reality is that we lack any kind of core guidance and desire to correct the course of industrial civilization much beyond token gestures and feel-good measures that have nothing to do with patching the holes in a rapidly-sinking ship.  

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way.  We could make decisions to move toward more efficient forms of transportation, live, work, shop, and play in small self-contained communities, moderate our energy use, etc, but this won't happen.  Unless we are burning our candle at both ends, people are always going to complain it's too dark. 

What are they going to do when the candle is gone and the lights are never coming back on?

Monday, September 26, 2011


In spite of the best efforts to get Europe's economic crisis under control, it's looking more and more like we're approaching the latest act in Europe's long retreat from anything resembling prosperity, optimism, strength, purpose, progress, and order.  In other words, entropy can only be held at bay for so long, before it completely overtakes any given system.

The award for being most nakedly out of touch with reality has to go to Angela Merkel, who states that faith in the idea of European unity would be destroyed by a Greek default.  What faith do people have in the EU, anyway?  This is when you know a politician has to go, when they state things like this, which are about as accurate and relevant as production figures from the old Soviet "five year plans."  Even Baghdad Bob wouldn't have bothered with drivel like that.

The levers of power in Europe have always had the tinge of inbreeding and incest about them, from the heads of different royal families being related (World War One was indeed a very bloody squabble between cousins), to the confusing claims and counter-claims on the English and French crowns, going all the way back to Charlemagne splitting his empire between his three sons and giving historians no shortage of things to write about for a millenia.  The difference with the age of nobility and the modern age is that it's now the bankers who are in bed with each other, while not having enough legal degrees of separation.  The latest sign of this is the IMF requesting more money from member states to solve the European debt crsis.

If anything, this should be the largest red flag, the loudest siren, the biggest shot across the bow, for anyone who thinks that a united Europe still has a future -- or, indeed, that Europe has much of an future at all.  States which are bankrupt are having to give money to an organization which is also pretty much broke, to bail out other states which are bankrupt...this is the financial equivalent of stretching a rubber band to its limit, then trying again, but cutting it in half so that it goes twice as far. 

The increasingly shrill warnings coming out of the European leadership aren't without some merit, though, even if those warnings are coming far too late.  Europe has always been at odds with itself.  A unifying religion (Catholicism) kept it somewhat together until the Reformation did away with that model and the continent was wracked with centuries of war as the yoke of the church was thrown off and replaced with the yoke of ambition.  Unifying philosophies (the Enlightenment and Nationalism) kept Europe together for around a century until it bled itself white through the competition of nations in two World Wars.  Now, the idea of the Cornucopian welfare state is running up against the hard reality of the decline of resources, the end of European global economic dominance, the lack of a Soviet threat to keep people all looking over the same shoulder, and it's anyone's guess as to which way the dominos will start to topple.  The European leadership isn't so stupid as to not know that history readily wants to repeat itself, just blinded by their own ambitions.

It should be hard to say what the future holds for Europe when (not if) the EU breaks up and old ideas begin to reassert themselves, but it's really not.  How long is it going to be before radical heads of state (of both the right and the left) find themselves with newfound political vigor, supported by a base of people who will come to see that all the promises made by European politicians are as empty as the national treasury?  How long will it take for these new radicals to start looking for others outside of their borders (or within, for that matter) to blame?  How long will it be until one leader or another decides that the only path for national survival is to seize things that someone else has? 

Much has been made of the ominous possibilities that might follow an American collapse, but looking overseas probably demands as much attention.  In either case, the cause is still the same -- a population that assumes that the lights will never go off or the oil wells will run dry, led by people who realize that the person who speaks truth will be lucky to keep their head, much less their elected office.  When we think that somehow, even if our own nation and sphere of influence implodes, that there will still be pockets of learning and civilization elsewhere in the world, we should remember that when collapse comes, it is not going to be local and limited, but global and profound.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Somme Ideas

World War One has faded into distant memory as the last few survivors have passed into memory and their eternal rest, with the death of the last English veteran of the war.  The horror of the war, eclipsing any war before or since, is a footnote in the history books, perhaps as it should be.  Clearly, humanity didn't learn anything from it, as the men who saw it first hand were all too eager, perhaps even anxious, to fight another one only two decades later, to settle old scores and right old wrongs. 

In the mind of those who are at least somewhat familiar with the war, the Battle of the Somme is probably most representative of the conduct of the war.  Repeated bloody Allied assaults on fortified and well-prepared German positions, at with only moderate gains and massive casualities, became the model of the conflict in the public mind.  Tragically, the Somme was the only another link in a chain of bloody battles, where the same "over-the-top" and "hearts of oak" mentality prevailed again and again, until the French army mutinied in 1917 and refused to participate in futile attacks. 

It's hard to really fathom the mindset of the generals involved and why this repeat slaughter happened.  There are a number of theories, including the problem of military conservatism, unfamiliarity with the true lethality of weapons at the time, political pressure, and so on.  I think it was simply that the leadership could not even begin to grasp the size of the problem and had no way to deal with it outside of trying the same thing over and over in the hopes that somehow it would work.

Just as the tragedy of World War One was that the leadership could not learn from their mistakes, and could only think of repeating them in the hopes that somehow, somewhere, it would finally work, we see the same mindset and approach in modern America with the economy.  After multiple stimulus packages and massive government spending in the hopes of somehow creating jobs, of getting the economy rolling and avoiding another recession/depression, the next idea that is going to be tried is...more stimulus packages and massive government spending.  A $450 billion dollar jobs bill proposed by Obama is the stuff from which tragic jokes are made.  The only reason that it's not being laughed out of Washington is because the Republicans are made from the same cloth, only they believe that warfare, not welfare, is the key to economic health.

While it's tempting to say "Well, it's just money, and not lives," we have to remember that this kind of spending is going to lead to economic and social collapse, sooner or later.  There are around three hundred million people in modern America, most of whom are far removed from the land and any means of food production, not to mention that this population well exceeds what pre-industrial agriculture could functionally maintain.  What would happen in the case of a fast economic crash, with all the following chaos and inability of people to obtain food at any price, similar to Germany post-World War One? 

Like World War One, I think the problem is also that the political and economic leadership really has no idea of the size of the problem and how to address it.  On one hand, there is a restive public that threatens to vote out anyone who cannot deliver the sun, the moon, and stars at no cost.  On the other hand, there is a changing reality, where the excess reserves built up by over five hundred years of pre-industrial and industrial economic activity are finally exhausted, when land and resources are running scarce and the only answer seems to be to burn them faster.

What needs to happen?  What are the solutions?  Are there solutions?  Those are three questions I won't address, because the very first thing that needs to happen on the public stage -- that of admitting that there IS a problem, that the old models will no longer work -- hasn't even happened yet.  Just like generals marching soldiers into the maw of death at the Somme because their playbook has only one page, we citizens of the industrialized world are being marched straight into the maw of collapse, because our own "leaders" seem to have only one fix to these kinds of problems -- more of the same until there is no more left.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Brother Against Brother

As part of writing this blog, and researching much of the material which goes into it, I've had the opportunity and need to talk to a wide range of people with an equally wide range of opinions.  This includes people who either back the Tea Party viewpoint or the pro-Obama viewpoint. 

The thing which stands out in many of these discussions, is that there is no reconciliation between one viewpoint and another.  People on the right accuse people on the left of wanting to use government to oppress them and destroy them financially.  People on the left accuse people on the right of wanting to "take over" the system and trample freedom in the name of some hidden agenda.  The facts no longer matter, the notion that each side genuinely believes it is trying to do what is best for the nation, is lost on the other.  The hatred between each camp is palpable and is not decreasing.

Things like this get glossed over in the good times, when there's no real pressure and competition for how to distribute limited resources.  When everyone is fat and happy, there's no need to worry about who's fighting over scraps.  Now, however, with uneployment and despair reaching catastrophic levels, a president with no ability to lead the nation out of the mess, a congress which is paralyzed by partisanship and whoring after lobbyist dollars, the pressures are growing until the inevitable is going to happen, a spark of some sort, the first rock through a window, which is going to set off a spiral of violence until a de facto state of civil war exists.

The first American civil war came perilously close to tearing the nation apart and has had repercussions that have not stopped to the present day.  This was in a time and place when there was a giant western frontier for people to escape to and rebuild new lives in a place of plenty.  Now that there are no ready-to-exploit frontiers left, no safety valve for radicals of both sides, what is going to be the end result?  A nonstop grind of civil conflict until there is not one stone standing on top of another?

It is in times like these when knowledge is lost and ideas die, in favor of the daily struggle to survive.  Look at any of the "third world" nations wracked by civil wars in recent decades.  What is there except using food as a weapon, making homebuilt AK-47s in the basement, and getting high in between clashes in the streets between one "militia" and another?  Do we think that we're any more immune to this than any other nation or culture?

While it doesn't necessarily seem that civil war and collapse would necessarily intersect with the storing of knowledge for rebuilding in the distant future, consider that the Khmer Rouge made a habit of putting plastic bags over the heads of people who wore glasses or didn't have callouses on their hands.  Would a few bins of carefully packaged books be enough to condemn someone?  Even if that were not the case, do we expect that anything resembling a public library would survive civil upheaval, or would they be torn down and disposed of along with all other institutions, such as universities, that one faction or another saw as objectionable? 

Monday, August 29, 2011

To Prep or Not to Prep?

The posts which have received the most comments on the blog have been centered around "prepping" and the speed at which we expect collapse to occur, if we expect it to occur at all.  Prepping has long been a staple of the idea of personal survival, even if it hasn't always occurred in the framework of a breakdown of modern civilization.  After all, what's a root cellar but a means of putting food aside for when it might not be available in the future?  Prepping, itself, is just a modern, reasonable, interpretation of "storing up for winter," expect that we're storing up for when there's nothing left on grocery shelves and never will be left again.

The attitudes around it, either favoring prepping, or dismissing it, seem to really reflect our own personal views of how we think the course of civilization is most likely to proceed.  Logically, this makes a lot of sense.  If we think that we'll see a gradual decline, why would we spend a lot of time and effort on acquiring supplies that would likely never get used, when we could still obtain what we needed?  Likewise, if we expect that the bottom could fall out from things overnight, we would want to have all we would potentially need because we would think that we could not acquire it again. 

Logic tends to point to this being the safer route.  The assumption has always been the collapse of industrial civilization through attrition of resources as being the most likely form of collapse, to the point where looking at anything else becomes somewhat "heretical."  The idea of a gradually decreasing slope on a curve of resource availability and industrial activity is just there to keep people from getting too nervous about the contraction.  The reality is that a best-fit isn't going to reflect what is most likely to happen -- a chaotic curve of fits and starts as we see pockets of collapse appear, followed by desperate human activity to try to restore some sense of normalcy (the "bailouts" in the past few years as evidence of this).  For a casual observer, that would be a blip on the radar, but for the person living through a food riot, it would be very real.

Collapse through de-industrialization would proceed in fits and starts, but what about a more sudden and profound sort of collapse?  A pandemic, resulting from the bird flu or somesuch, would be devastating and would quickly spell the end for our complex systems as people would not be able to maintain them.  War of some sort is always a spectre waiting in the wings.  The poles shifting, pick something.  If we look at things from a mathematical perspective, the odds that there will be a civilization-ending event are almost certain, given enough time.

In the end, I think a reasonable case can be made for erring on the side of having more goods set aside, than not.  In a sense, this is a companion to Pascal's wager -- instead of dealing with the existence of God, we're dealing with the possibility of collapse.  Does it make more sense to prepare for a collapse that may not come within our lifetime or does it make more sense to assume it won't occur and then be left with only hoping that it doesn't?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Like Minds

It's been nearly a year since I started this blog, and a number of things have become abundantly clear.  One thing is that there is a growing sense among people that things really aren't headed in the right direction.  It may be from environmental concerns, too many promises made by governments with shaky finance, or just a gut feeling that we are entering a time when various unseen factors begin to create a complex pattern which will bring civilization to its knees.  Another is that people are looking for information and motivation, anything which will help them both prepare and also to come to grips with what seems inevitable at this point (revolutions, war, famine, pick something).  However, the last is the fact that some people have also gone down the same road that the Leibowitz Society has, that of understanding that there is much valuable information which needs to be saved and preserved. 

Added to the resources links are a couple of items that people may not have looked at before, the Ozymandius Society and the Long Now Foundation.  The contrast between the two ideas could not be more different.  The Ozymanidus Society would like to preserve some record of the apex of human knowledge, going out probably far beyond the lifespan of our species.  I've had a few discussions with the gentleman who has initiated that project and it's interesting to see where our ideas both intersect and diverge. 

The Long Now Foundation is a completely different effort.  Instead of being one highly intelligent person, it is a gathering of highly intelligent people, among them one Neal Stephenson, whose novel Anathem has been some of the inspiration of the Leibowitz Society.  Their idea is to take a long-term view with regard to human thought, to create a body of thought which lasts beyond the few milliseconds that our information-saturated minds seem to be able to retain any pattern.  While the idea of a dark age is implicit in their work, it is a dark age of the mind and human cognition, not a physical one which involved the collapse of human society.
But, in both cases, there is still the idea that we need to save our thinking, our knowledge, our ideas.  The Leibowitz Society sits somewhere between these two extremes, recognizing on one hand that the pace of events in human civilization, the "black swans" so to speak, are aligning so quickly now that there isn't a lot of hope of stemming a collapse.  On the other hand, there is the idea that we can and should preserve knowledge and ideas for a future age, as well as for their own sake. 

While part of the "mission" of the Leibowitz Society is to collect and preserve knowledge, we need to step back a minute from storing books and trying to figure out what would be of value, and instead just think for ourselves for a time.  What ideas catch our interest?  What theory or insight has been valuable in our lives and would be of value to others?  Is it psychology?  Philosophy?  Applied mathematics?  I would be interested in hearing from people who have rejected the "fast food" of modern pop culture and begun to explore the pathways of their own mind.  This, I think, is where we begin to see that we are not alone, that we are indeed part of a common vision of letting our knowledge outlive ourselves.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Expiration Dates

The idea of long-term planning in prepardness is something which doesn't get a lot of play in the real world setting.  People seem to expect that a crisis will last a year or two, then we'll dust off, pick up the pieces, and drive down to pick up a pizza.  Or something like that.  The coda on every piece of fiction written by a survivalist seems to show the surviving protagonists relaxing, with the lights back on in a family setting that is almost reminescent of the ideal of the fifties. 

In contrast, the more mainstream post-apocalyptic fiction tends to look toward the opposite view, especially cinematic fiction.  Looking at the world of Mad Max, it's clear that there is going to be no quick and easy recovery in that setting.  Other films like Cyborg, Steel Dawn, and The Ultimate Warrior, all seem to show the same idea, that a world which has taken centuries, if not millenia, to assemble itself in a certain way, falls apart, then the crash is going to be as loud as the ascent was spectacular. 

Of the two views, I think the long-term collapse view is far more realistic.  When Rome (the ancient era equivalent of America) collapsed, it took over a thousand years for Europe to reassemble itself in any form that even began to rival what the Roman Empire had been at its height.  Therefore, part of the "mission" of the Leibowitz Society is to encourage long-term survival planning, not on the order of a month, a year, or even a decade. 

Modern "prepping" seems to operate with the mindset that if enough things are put to the side, there will be no problems.  Firearms and ammunition are always on the list, but what happens when the firearm is still around, but the 3-4 cases of ammunition stored up don't work as intended any longer?  What about the several pairs of shoes with soles that crack from depolymerization and the socks that don't stay up because they were made with elastic and no other provision to keep them in place?

Realistically speaking, it seems reasonable that the model for where human industry will settle at will be somewhere prior to the dawn of the industrial age.  In other words, if it existed, or could be done, in the late 1700s, it's probably fair to say it will be possible after the collapse.  So, with regard to firearms, black powder flintlocks seem likely to be around, but modern ammunition will probably not be likely to be produced.  There are some areas, such as medicine, that will at least benefit from modern knowledge (no more bleeding with leeches), even if not all the technology (x-rays) are available.  One of the most striking things will likely be the "flattening" of society and labor, as high-tech agriculture is replaced by sweat and toil. 

I drew up the following list as an intellectual exercise to try to figure out how long things would last following a complete collapse, based on general expiration dates.  Obviously, it's not complete, and these are just rough estimates.  But, it's interesting to still think this through in terms of a generational exercise.  If we accept the core principle behind the Leibowitz Society -- long term storage of knowledge -- then we also should accept the idea that the preparations we've made for ourselves to get through the coming collapse are also likely to be used by our descendants, and we should plan accordingly for them, too.

2 years:
Canned foods, medicines, seeds

5 years:
Gasoline, diesel, kerosene
Batteries (dry and wet cell, lipo)
Non-leather shoes
Pens and ink

20 years:
Modern roofs, acidic paper

20-40 years:
Ammunition, preserved foods

50 years:
Metal tools

100 years:
Wooden furniture, wine, distilled liquor, firearms

While not inclusive, it would be interesting to hear of examples of people setting things aside for the long term, or if they can think of prepping supplies which don't have long shelf lives and or will be used up quickly and people will have to find substitutes for them.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

London's Burning

On September 7th, 1940, the German Luftwaffe bombed London after a smattering of RAF attacks on Berlin.  Particularly excited by this turn of events was Hermann Goering, who telegrammed his wife Emmy and bragged "I've sent my bombers to London!  London's burning!"  The irony, of course, was that the shift by the Luftwaffe to the bombing of London provided a respite to RAF Fighter Command that was essentially on the ropes by that point in time, running short on aircraft and especially short on pilots.  Now, 71 years later after Germany failed to destroy England's defenses, London is once more on fire, but this time her own people are doing the deed.

There may be a handful of surviving RAF pilots who are now asking themselves just why they flung their Hurricanes and Spitfires into the sky against the Messerschmidts and Heinkels, if the end result was going to be angry mobs burning down shops, houses, and businesses.  Did they suspect that the nation of England might well be destroyed by the barbarians from within? 

There doesn't seem to necessarily be an easy way to categorize the riots.  Nativists would try to point to immigration or race as being the source of the problem, but there were plenty of pictures of Anglo-Saxon looking folking swinging heavy objects at police cars or being dragged off by riot cops.  Marxists, on the other side of the fence, would try to blame lack of economic opportunity, but can a convincing case be made when a Sony distribution facility was targeted and looted?  (I tend to doubt that anyone is going to put "The Internationale" on their stolen iPods)

It goes without saying that there won't be any shortage of opinions on the cause of these riots (and other ones around the world).  I don't think it's unlikely that we'll begin seeing the same sort of thing start to occur in America, either.  However, one explanation lies in complexity theory, the branch of mathematics which deals with spontaneous organization of patterns.  In short, complexity theory notes that patterns can arise where they didn't previously exist, generally caused by energy entering a semi-closed system.  An example of this is a neon sign -- neon gas just sits in the tube until electricity is applied, when the molecules begin to glow.  An even better example is a spontaneous traffic jam -- for no real reason, cars begin slowing en masse, until traffic slows to a crawl.  Just as quickly, it can dissipate, the road becoming clear once more, without anyone really knowing the cause.  Yet another example is the action of acts defending their colony or digging a nest.

While we see the effect of destabilizing industrial society in the riots, complex systems also seem to exist at a higher level in places like Washington.  A poster commented here a couple of weeks ago about the debt crisis solving itself, if the government would simply quit spending.  We look at the "debt ceiling deal," and ask just how each party can support something so meaningless, claim some victory, blame the other side, and kick the can down the road.  On top of that, we ask how someone like Alan Greenspan can just say that the printing presses can keep running, or Bernake can just float a trial balloon about QE3?  The answer is that our system of leadership has taken on a particularly rigid and chaotic pattern after years of energy inputs in the form of lobbying, power grabs over budgeting, and everything else that goes with fighting over the spoils in a late-state empire. 

The pattern which has emerged is very much like that traffic jam -- nothing is going anywhere and no one really knows why, even though there's no wreck on the road, no construction to channel the traffic down to one lane.  Nothing moves, nothing changes, it just keeps plodding on to the inevitable point where it collapses into chaos, once there is no more energy to feed into the system.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The New Tets

In early 1968, the Vietnamese communists launched a surprise offensive against the American and South Vietnamese forces, which aimed at seizing control of various strategically important areas, as well as triggering an uprising against a politically dubious South Vietnamese government.  The offensive, from a military standpoint, was a failure, being soundly defeated by the American and South Vietnamese militaries and badly weakening the North Vietnamese/Vietcong forces for a period of time.  However, from a political standpoint, it was a rousing success, for the perception in America was that, in spite of the power of the American military, and demonstrating success in terms of controlling the battlefield, the communist forces were resilient enough to withstand everything that had been thrown against them and continue the fight, despite predictions from government representatives that the war was being won.  Ultimately, the view began to shift that victory in the war was not possible.

Like the Tet Offensive, two events happened toward the end of last week which have the power to permanently alter the public perception of the American empire and cost it the lifeblood which sustains it -- the confidence of the American people.

The first is the death 30 Americans (and 8 Afghans), in a "rocket attack" on a CH-47 transport helicopter during a raid in a Taliban-controlled area in Afghanistan.  In many ways, this attack is a symbolic throwback to the Tet Offensive in 1968.  While only involving one chopper and a small number of deaths, it very much echoes the events in Vietnam where the public had been confident about the strategy of the American military and there was a perception that the communist forces had suffered so many defeats that it was only a matter of time before they were rendered useless as a military force.  Likewise, with Afghanistan, the American public has been told for years that the Taliban was effectively defeated as a functioning military force, that the death of bin Laden was a major turning point, and it's only a matter of time before things are wrapped up and the troops could come home. 

The loss of these lives is another reminder that the war is far from over, that the Taliban can still continue to fight.  In both Vietnam, and in Afghanistan, the nature of the wars themselves is that victory is almost impossible to achieve -- it would come only when there was no one willing to pick up a rifle and go fight the Americans.  And, like McNamara after Tet, Leon Panetta has come under pressure to explain the "credibility gap" between what the public has been told and the reality of the war.

The other earthshaking event for the American empire is the downgrading of the credit rating of the United States, or how confident people can be they'll get their money back if they lend it to America.  Like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the struggle to turn the recession/depression around and get back to something like the boom years of the late 90s, or at least contain the damage, has been an ongoing effort, one in which the American public was told that we have turned the corner, that there is light at the end of the tunnel.  However, all the economic reports and anecdotes have been pointing in the other direction and Moody's has finally just said what everyone who has been paying attention already knew -- that the staggering American debt was beginning to endanger the economy to the point where investment in the nation was beginning to become risky.

The United States has had a AAA rating for almost a hundred years, since 1917.  Now, it is AA+ and will likely drop to AA once it is seen that the government is still unable to make singificant progress on tackling the debt and deficit problem.  Likewise, the Chinese bond rating agency has re-rated America from A+ to A.  The response to these has ranged from the tepid (Greenspan saying "we can print more money") to the profound (China saying "the dollar is finished).  Nowhere in this is anything which can even begin to be calming to the average person in America who is now wondering if they will have anything of worth at all in the bank when they retire, or even when they go to the grocery next week. 

Nations are allowed a catastrophe or two from time to time, as the citizens have a shared common culture and outlook, but empires like American aren't afforded these luxuries.  People support an empire only as long as it is "winning," and look to desert it when it isn't.  The Soviet Empire appeared to begin down the path of disintegration in earnest when its military might was questioned after not being able to win Afghanistan, and the incompetence of the Soviet management of domestic affairs took another shot after Chernobyl.  A few years later, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist as a political entity.  Have the "New Tets" created the momentum to push America down the same path?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Crash, Bang, Boom

I didn't check the news between about 7 in the morning and just a little while ago...and was reminded of exactly how fast the economy can start to implode again, much along the lines of what happened back in fall 2008, when I went to lunch and came back to see a five hundred point drop.  The stock market is down around five percent, oil is down below 90 dollars a barrel (signaling that people believe that demand is going to drop off shortly, due to the failing economy), etc. 

The big difference between then and now is that I think there's a sea change in attitudes toward the economy and recovery, and not for the better.  In 2008, Barack Obama was elected partly because people saw some sign of hope with a change in party at the White House.  This followed on the heels of a massive bailout package which started triggered the deficits north of a trillion dollars.  People believed for much of 2009 and 2010 that recovery was still possible, that all the measures taken by the Fed and the government would bear some sort of fruit, that green shoots were coming up all over the place.


The debt discussion and the tacit admission that there is no political will in Washington to even begin to take any serious steps to address seem to have been the last straw, the American version of the Argentinian government admitting at the end of 2001 that there was no way to deal with the debt, that the problem had gone too far and there was nothing to do but watch the barn burn down. 

People are still going to raise the rallying cry that the crisis can be overcome, that we can come to terms with the debt and deal effectively with it, save the economy, and so on.  Hope is a good thing and we can't live without it, but there's also a time to be realistic and understand that a storm is coming.  Whether or not this is going to be the last high point on the roller coaster before the big 200 foot drop, or we're going to see more ups and downs, it has to be clear that we're not going to return to "normal" again, maybe not in our lifetimes or our children's lifetimes, that the figurative lights are going out across America, and the industrial world, maybe for good. 

While people make think it's getting too late in the game to prepare for what's going to happen down the road, especially folks who are coming to the realization that things are getting ugly, the truth is that anything in the way of preparation may be helpful.  The position of the Leibowitz Society has generally been that the most likely collapse scenario is one of the relatively gradual decline (in other words, you'll definitely see it coming and not have to run from a horde of zombies), but that the decline isn't going to be linear.  In other words, there are going to be peaks and valleys of stability and instability on the way down.  Instabilities might well cause situations, for example, where electrical power is lost for a time or store shelves get emptied in a buying panic.  In times like this, it will be absolutely critical to be as self-reliant as possible, where "conventional" prepping will be invaluable.  I picked up a book recently, called "The Prepper's Pocket Guide" with an eye toward reviewing it for people who were new to the idea of prepping and long-term survival.  While it's not as comprehensive as a lot of other works, it's a very good entry-level work and has a lot of useful information for people who are new to the subject or just looking for a one-stop information source to flip through on a regular basis.  Recommended.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


When most people think of surviving for the long term, they focus on sensible areas, like how to produce food, how to take care of medical problems, self-defense, etc.  However, one area which is often neglected, at least from my experience, is entertainment.  While people are wise to concentrate on the fundamentals of survival, they fail to remember that they are not going to want to work non-stop in the fields or the workshop and might want to find some entertainment to break the monotony. 

There are obviously a number of forms of entertainment available, such as music, sports, art, but gaming is a time-honored way of passing the time.  Games of various sorts go back millenia, to ancient Rome, Babylon, India and Japan, to name a few.  In the modern age, whole websites are devoted to board gaming (such as Board Game Geek) and there is almost an endless variation of those games.  Out of all the games available, the one that still seems to stand out is chess.

Chess, over all other games, has a few advantages:

1. The rules are easy to learn and haven't changed in several hundred years.  There's no "house rules" under most circumstances. 

2. The rules are easy to learn, fitting maybe on one sheet of paper, making it very easy to learn, but taking a lifetime to master.

3. The playing components are simple to make, durable and minimal.  32 pieces and a board can be made out of crude wood, clay, etc.  It's portable and easy to store.  Cards are complicated to make and wear out with regular use.  True-rolling dice are difficult to make.

4. The language of chess is universal, as it's all math and symbols.  Anyone can play a game with anyone else without speaking a common language.

5. There is, for the average person, enough depth in the game that they can never really grasp all the fundamentals of it.

If you've never really played chess before, I encourage you to give it a try.  If you've played a few times and gotten shelled by your opponent, go find a few books which can give you drills and problems designed to help you get a handle on enjoying the game.  Even while we are still living in our modern information-age society, there is a level of enjoyment in playing a game of chess that you won't find in more (superficially) sophisticated forms of entertainment.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Ghost Town Blues

I saw a very interesting piece (here) on the shift of population from America's rural areas to the cities, especially the northeast.  This really isn't news to anyone who has spent any time in a rural town in recent years.  If you go to "main street," you'll see most of the beautiful old brick buildings have fallen into disrepair, with cracked or boarded up windows, peeling paint, water damage.  They no longer serve any use, no more than a castle in the countryside in Europe.  Yeah, sure, you might find something like a photo studio in one, a pizza parlor in another, maybe even a government office, but mostly, the occupants are like pigeons living in the loft of an abandoned mansion -- they're there, but just because it's there and have no real tie to the place.

Interestingly, the piece even talks about post offices closing up.  This is in addition to sheriff's departments who are increasingly unable to provide patrol services to rural areas as their own budgets evaporate.  So, not only are rural areas losing population, they are also losing any kind of political organization.  Roads, also, are going back to gravel and bridges that are in need of maintenance or are damaged are often simply closed until the necessary funding can be found (good luck).  Of course, some roads aren't all that passable to begin with. 
Part of the problem is the loss of jobs in the rural areas.  Farming is increasingly done on a very large scale, requiring lots of energy input and expensive machinery, putting it out of the reach of most people as a practical way of making a living.  A number of the plants which were opened in rural areas (due to low land costs and lower living costs) are closing or relocating because of the economy and rising shipping costs.  Of course, as population shifts, all the service-based businesses close as well, as there's no one left to patronize those businesses.

This seems to be a trend with most empires, at any rate.  Rome, for example, was relatively decentralized for quite a long time, with the bulk of the population being composed of small-scale farmers.  As slavery increased, and landowners grew and consolidated their holdings, the population tended to move to the cities and seek handouts, leaving the rural areas relatively deserted.  In turn, this put considerable pressure on the administration and stability of the Imperial cities, that of trying to make sure the populace was fed and didn't riot or revolt.  While arguably not a factor which directly contributed to the fall of Rome, it isn't hard to imagine that it made the Empire somewhat less flexible and able to respond to other problems.

There are some obvious implications for modern America here.  One is that the loss of smaller-scale farming, distributed populations, and close ties to rural areas, means that agriculture and food distribution is going to wind up being even more "brittle" than it has been in the past, and dependent on effective transportation.  Another is that the population which moves to the cities is probably not any more likely to find work than it would have in the countryside -- the continuing Depression, combined with the fact that many people are going to be competing with an established labor force that already has existing social connections, means that opportunities will be limited, even on a generational basis.  Politicians are going to face the dilemma of trying to fund social programs to appease an increasingly restless urban population and further ruining the budgets, or are going to face a situation like the Paris communues -- modern "ghettos" which erupt in violence from time to time (I'm reminded of "Mega-City One" from Judge Dredd, too).

As it gets harder and harder to maintain a workable economy, too, the cities are obviously going to see a serious degregdation in living standards.  While people have advocated staying in urban areas during periods of collapse, it may get to the point where they are not worth occupying any longer, by any rational measure.  The larger the population, the worse these problems will be. 

On the other hand, this does present some opportunities for people who are interested in transitioning to a post-oil, post-industrial lifestyle.  Entire towns are up for sale now, apparently, and more and more land is going to simply be abandoned and allowed to become overgrown again.  One aspect of the Leibowitz Society's philosophy has been the exploration of forming communities around the preservation of knowledge, similar to Dark Ages monasteries, meaning that these efforts would find plenty of open and unused space.  It is obviously up to the individual to decide what their best course is, but this is still some food for thought.  The key idea to remember is that what a person who has grown up in the information age is looking in terms of dwelling space or lifestyle is going to be vastly different from a person who is contemplating the transition to post-collapse life. 

Monday, July 25, 2011


This summer is shaping up to be one for the history books, and not in a good way.  Another drug-addled musician joined the "27 Club," some headcase with a vaguely racist-nativist agenda kills nearly 100 people in Norway, record heat is cooking crops and tempers in most of the lower 48.  While nothing is on the radar at the moment, I wouldn't be surprised if we wake up one morning and hear about a Category 5 killstorm barreling its way toward the Eastern Seaboard.

However, all of the topical bad news of the day is still overshadowed -- in spite of the media's best efforts -- by the impending economic financial implosion in America and the Hobson's choice it poses for people in political office.  The choices have boiled down to extending the debt ceiling and seeing the dollar slowly sink, or not raising the debt ceiling and seeing the dollar melt down overnight.  This is what the media and politicians are not presenting to people -- that there is no way out with the two "options" being floated right now for people.

The logical choice would be to simply stop spending money that the nation doesn't have.  This is what most people do when they're faced with bills they can't pay.  If they're smart, they don't go get another credit card.  For the American government, it would mean drastically cutting defense and social spending, pushing it down to levels where it would be possible to stop adding to an already massive debt and maybe even start cutting that debt a little, here and there.

There is of course a small problem with this.  Objectively speaking, the United States is an empire, not a nation.  It maintains military bases in many different parts of the world, something that is almost unique at this point in time, and exercises a great deal of influence over many governments through economic incentives.  In addition to maintaining external control, America itself is not really a nation in the sense of a shared culture and values, with the Civil War being an obvious example of this heterogeneity and the problems it can cause.  The "War on Poverty" itself was simply a massive attempt to soothe the pain of and address the injustices directed at the African-American segment of the American population before it tried again to assert itself politically, and so on. 

Ultimately, America cannot disengage from where it already is, without first dealing with the issue that the definition of America itself would change, and this is what the real heart of this political battle is all about.  The right wants to support military spending, the left wants to support social spending, and neither type of spending can be sustained in the long run.  This is the fate of empires...extending themselves to the point where they can't be maintained and destroy themselves in the process of trying to make it just a little longer, like the person who can't stop spending.  For people who have studied ecology, this is referred to as "carrying capacity" -- the population we have now (both literally and in terms of ideas and institutions) has been built around something which could not be sustained.

While people have mentioned that a default might be a good thing, to reign in spending, the issue here is that doing so is going to very quickly expose the fault lines in American public life.  Far too many people have their fortunes and fates tied to the American government, to the dollar, and to the systems that have been created around these two entities.  Could the pieces of lives and institutions be picked back up quickly enough once the dust of the economic chaos settled?  Or would we see a confusion with no clear way forward?  I think it would take only a very short time before people start mentally and emotionally, if not physically, heading for the exits.  It won't be longer after that all the systems which have been put in place and maintained by those same people will cease to exists.

It's never easy to know how to act in times like these, but I think one piece of advice makes sense -- disengage as much as possible.  Look to minding your own life and realize that the thunder you're hearing is the long-forecast storm finally arriving.  Get away from anything which requires a sound dollar and make sure you have plans in place for the day when there is nothing on the store shelves and what you need must be obtained through barter or local labor.  Understand that you are going to do with a much simpler lifestyle if you are not living simply.  If you already are, then be content in knowing that you're likely going to be okay in the long run.  Last, understand that all things come to an end, sooner or later, including nations and empires, and that what is really most important is likely in front of you anyway.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Consumer Confidence Game

Well, so we're in the middle of the vacation season.  As James Kunstler has put it, "The time of the year when we turn Lake George upside down with cigarette boat Cuinsiarts."  Or something like that.  I'll defer to his ability to turn a phrase, but you get the idea.  When the highways are even more choked with people going places they can't afford to go to, so they can start counting down the time until they can go home.

In the daily games of "How do we keep their eye off the ball?" at the alphabet soup networks, the Casey Anthony ordeal has come to a close for the moment, to be replaced by the aftershock of of talking heads all clamoring to make the most outrageous statements about how the process of law should work.  Some people have called for an end to the jury system, and I expect we'll eventually have someone stumble across the Code of Napoleon and decide to apply the bastard child of criminal law in post-Revolution France.  Maybe we'll just skip to the world of Death Race and be done with it (good flick if you enjoyed Running Man...haven't seen the original Death Race, so I can't comment).  

Unemployment is edging back up again, or at least hovering around like a buzzard who wants a snack.  It looks like the steam has run out from the stimulation, the census lift, and the Golden Age of Hiring at the Golden Arches.  Almost ten years of war and a busted economy which is falling off the cliff, slow-motion, like Homer Simpson, are leaving people wondering where we're going next. 

Consumer Confidence, that weathervane of how willing we are to spend money we don't have on crap we don't have, is sinking yet again, two straight months in a row now.  Some people will say that it's a sign we're not recovering, economically, but I think it's a sign that people are coming to their senses and realizing that no promises or debt-based government lottery/stimulus packages are going to make a damn bit of difference in what is a steadily declining nation.

Ultimately, people are going to start seeing they have to learn how to fend for themselves, or at least help each other out.  While I'm pretty jaded a lot of the time about collapse, having maintained this blog for most of a year, having kept something jumped out at me today that made even me sit up.  I was looking through a bookseller's items and noticed the little bar at the bottom which showed what other people were looking at:  Self-Sufficient Life Homesteading, Home Canning, Wilderness Survival Guide Books CD, Survival CD Self-Reliance, Raising Chickens Permaculture...

So much for books about World War Two, the Ford Mustang or vacation homes...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Snake Oil

Barack Obama's recent decision to release reserve petroleum was one of those head-scratching moments in modern history.  Reaction to it is almost as puzzling, since it seems to mostly depend on one's political viewpoint -- on one hand, those who support Obama politically are applauding the decision, saying it will put pressure on Iran and stabilize oil prices.  Those who don't support him have mocked the decision, pointing out that it was around one day's worth of consumption for the United States, and are chanting "drill, baby, drill!"

Unfortunately, regardless of the fantasy world of most commentators, prices are predictably starting to climb again and the reality of four-dollar-a- gallon gasoline is going to be here before much longer, maybe even before the 4th of July "travel holiday" again (it's up around 25 cents here over the last day or so).  In neither political case, either, does the reality of Peak Oil come up in any of the discussions, so we're still -- as a nation and a civilization -- living in what is looking to be a permanent state of denial.  Even if we opened up previously off-limits in America to drilling (who doesn't want to go to the beach and see oil rigs lining the horizon? -- much nicer than dolphins, waves and seabirds to look at), it would still not make up for where would need to be at to make prices drop significantly.

Apparently, that same permanent state of denial is also extending to the economy and money.  America, politically speaking, is becoming a superpower-sized version of a gambling addict who has already sold most of his worldly possessions to keep playing, and is now borrowing money from one loan shark to pay back to another, so bad are his debts.  All it would take is for one of our creditors to decide to eat their debt and put cement overshoes on us, and the game is over.  Talk of "across the board cuts" makes for good sound bites and lively political discussions among the vapidorati in the old and new media, but has as much chance of happening as I do of flapping my arms and flying.

So, just between Peak Oil and Megadebt, our future in America doesn't look so hot.  As oil grows scarcer and more expensive, it will go to nations who can offer oil exporting nations something of value in return.  Fiat currency is destined to crash, leaving only currencies which are backed by mineral wealth (or some other commodity) as means of exchange.  Since our own currency is built on a smile and a handshake, and is no longer built on anything with at least some physical presence (gold), America is going to sooner or later be turned away at the door when try to buy oil, and $4 a gallon on that day is going to seem like twenty-five cents a gallon does to us now.  We can try to take it by force, but I tend to think that the spectre of scorched earth in the form of burning oil wells would probably throw cold water on that with immediacy and there will be a token trickle released to at least allow Air Force One to fly around to whatever few airfields are left open by then.

I imagine that Barack Obama did what he thought he could at this point -- try to deflate prices a little, hope for the best, that maybe the various oil producing nations would do a little soul-searching and decide to act charitably in the interest of good will and love, or something along those lines.  However, like the larger economy, this is just where reality meets the road.  We have hit the iceberg and are taking on water too fast to stay afloat, we've gone off the cliff and are like the coyote in those brief seconds before gravity catches up to him, we're like the person with terminal cancer who gets coffee enemas because they think they can beat it, pick your own metaphor. 

The haunting scene, early in the Road Warrior, where Max is collecting gasoline from a wrecked car into a pan comes to mind.  It's only a little bit, maybe half a gallon or a gallon, but it's enough to get by another day.  That is where we are now, on a national scale, with releasing reserves in the hopes of driving prices down enough to let the economy creak along a little longer.