Monday, December 31, 2012

Guns, Guns, Guns

The bodies of the innocent children and teachers in Newtown, CT hadn't begun to cool before people started pointing fingers and placing blame about the causes of the shooting and how to prevent new ones. There was also the token moonbattery from people who look for a conspiracy under every rock, and can't accept that sometimes Bad Things Just Happen. The most significant part are the calls for new gun control laws, apparently much more ambitious and draconian that what was passed in prior decades. Essentially, anything that fits even remotely into the "assault weapon" category will be registered, banned from further sales, and "grandfathered in," so that when a person dies or wishes to get rid of the rifle, it will be turned over to the government.

Of course, there are quite a few problems with that idea. Does easy access to guns make it possible for a mentally unstable person to kill easily? Maybe, but plenty of mentally unstable people drive cars (road rage, anyone?). Do the actions of a miniscule number of people justify banning items that are safely and lawfully used by the other ninety-nine percent of people who own them? People might point toward violence in the inner cities and suggest that guns should be banned because of this, but will miss the point that drug prohibition fuels most of the violence there (in fact, if you factor out drug-related gun violence, our murder rate is fairly modest).

The other side of the coin is that gun bans are likely to meet with massive non-compliance and there is where things might get "interesting" (in the same way a shipwreck is "interesting"). The "militia movement" got a real boost back in 1993 when the "Brady Bill" went through, and attracted even more interest and membership in 1994 when the first "Assault Weapons Ban" was signed into law. Only the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 cooled enthusiasm for it. Things were considerably different back then -- the economy was still relatively on track, and we did not have the polarization and sense that things were starting to go "terribly wrong." Whatever his other failings, Bill Clinton was a good politician and was not "tone deaf" to what people were saying, unlike what seems to be the rule with both parties in Washington lately.

These days, we have talk of the "fiscal cliff," two (currently dormant but potentially radical) social movements in the form of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, painfully high unemployment, an economy that cannot get going again, a president who insists on "change" at a time when people are trying to "endure," real inflation, no way to value assets like real estate or stocks, the end of retirement, pick something. Trying to add gun control into the mix -- when most people tend to see their guns as the only real form of power or security that they have -- is at some point going to have a predictably and ugly result as people start talking to each other and agreeing that they will not follow the law.

Will all that talk lead somewhere? I don't know, just as I don't know if gun restrictions will have much of any effect on mass murder or if the proposed laws will survive the process of getting passed, or if they will survive a court challenge. However, it seems there is real potential there for people to completely disengage from active citizenship, and to being re-adopting the "militia mindset" of the nineties. I'm not talking about being generally frustrated with the situation in Washington, joining the Tea Party or OWS, etc, but actually considering the use of violence or real domestic terrorism as a "last resort." The fantasy of gun owners rising up against an oppressive government in a 1776-style affair is silly, but consider what effects there would be on the stability of the country if some people began shooting first and not bothering to ask questions later. Would entire regions simply decide to go their own way? I don't know, but significant changes in a nation usually come when people feel they are out of options, and it would be one step further down the road to social collapse.

As for readers of this blog who are looking for practical advice regarding firearms, if you already have these kinds of weapons and want to sell to avoid future hassles, the market is pretty hot right now. Insanely hot, as a matter of fact. If the laws pass and you keep any weapons on the list, even money says that they will eventually be confiscated anyway in a few years, after a mass shooting or two with a "legally registered weapon." On the other hand, the genie is out of the bottle and passing a law banning guns will by default only change the behavior of those willing to follow it. Criminals will eventually find it harder to acquire guns and ammunition, but I don't think it would be realistic for there to be any net effect on availability for at least a generation or more. Keep in mind, though, that the point of the Leibowitz Society is both to study our ongoing collapse and to preserve knowledge through the next Dark Age, not to get into random gunfights, so take that into consideration when doing your planning.

Finally, I just want to point out that these events should remind us of the value we place on the lives of those around us. Don't be a stranger, too. While we are often limited in what we can do to help others, turning away from people who are "on the edge" and ostracizing them may be a contributing factor in what they choose to do. Be connected and be involved in your community, and remember that love very often drives out hate.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Over the Cliff

I haven't written here for a while. Call it campaign season fatigue, maybe, or a desire to work on something else for a while. I seem to get burned out on writing about collapse from time to time, but even if we're not interested in collapse, it's still interested in us. Or, maybe I'm just like that little girl who was fatigued to the point of tears over "Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney."

I don't see a lot of point in commenting on the recent elections, so I'll just say this much -- this contest proved the sheer intellectual bankruptcy of pretty much anyone involved in the whole electoral and governing process of the Western world's largest and most powerful nation. This also includes the voters, who want to pretend that they can have a cornucopia of various kinds of benefits and spending as they see fit to vote for. This idea runs across most of the political spectrum, too -- spending is spending, no matter how you try to justify the "worthiness" of what you're spending on.

As sad an affair as the election was (this being the case no matter who won), the worst is yet to come. Consider now the economic literacy of the American public, who are the ultimate owners of this process. No one seems to really even understand the difference between debt and deficit, or much care. "Reducing the deficit" is a phrase which sounds nice, until you stop and put it in more sober terms -- the Titanic is taking on only 5000 gallons of water per minute, instead of 6000. Having a running surplus of $100 billion a year might actually do something to address the problem of debt, but it is a "pie-in-the-sky" type of fantasy to expect this to happen.

Not much is being done about the debt and deficit in Washington, which makes a sizeable portion of the population freak out on a regular basis, but even they are missing the context that this whole discussion is occurring in -- we have reached the point of "peak wealth," where the wealth of the world is not increasing, but is steadily diminishing as resources begin to get scarcer and more difficult to recover, energy supplies are not able to match the demand, and so on. People have the silly notion that we can "print out way out" of the fiscal mess, but printing money is independent of real wealth, which is not increasing, but decreasing as people use up resources, destroy parts of the environment, etc. Remember that money is just a reflection of wealth, and is not tied directly to it.

This makes the "fiscal cliff" discussion all the sillier. If taxes are raised to one hundred percent of income, all deductions were removed, and spending was slashed across the board, then there might be a chance to avoid the upcoming economic crash. However, that's not a political possibility, and would probably render the nation broken beyond any ability to recover. Likewise, if it's business as usual for the next few years, we're going to see the currency eventually collapse into nothingness. An alternative solution might be to try to figure out how to find a path through a future of receding growth would be most desirable, but is not going to happen in today's political climate.

So, at best, because the "fiscal cliff" is not recognized for what it is -- an obvious and clear symptom of our ongoing retraction of wealth -- then anyone proposing a solution to the problem is singing the wrong song. The immediate economic problems (real unemployment at least twenty percent, inflation, etc) are going to intensify as well, because the discussion does not match the reality. Worse, this is going to be a feedback cycle where the proposed solutions get increasingly more radical and draconian, even as the resulting problems intensify. At some point, the crisis will be indistinguishable from the solutions to the crisis, and we will have reached a state of full collapse (think of it as Kurzweil's Singularity, but in the inverse of outcome).

Okay, so I did lie a little bit -- I will talk a little more about the election. Part of the Leibowitz Society's mission is to preserve the practice of applying rational thought to the world. People can criticize rational thought in the abstract, but on a practical basis, it is all we as humans have to relate to and make sense of the world around us. Yet, for all of the progress made in the last couple of millenia, we sometimes slip back into "magical thinking," the idea that somehow our personal actions will affect an unrelated occurrence. Voting this time around seems to have been an excellent example of this -- people voting for Obama on one hand because of a perception that he would improve their lives, and people voting for Romney on the other hand, because of the perception that he would fix the economy. In neither case did anyone ever ask the most basic of questions -- is it within anyone's power anymore to stave off a complete collase of our economy and society? The secession petitions are a ludicrous, if logical, extension of this thinking, too.

I will end this post with that thought and suggest that this is a good time to evaluate where we stand in relation to the world. Are we looking at alternate means of making a living? Are we keeping a clear and attentive mind about where the world is headed? Are we collecting books and accumulating knowledge to pass on to future generations? Are we focusing our energies and resources on "dual use" things? (i.e. hobbies that will become a way of life after a collapse) Are we gently evangelizing our friends and neighbors that all is not well?

And, last, are we keeping a cheerful heart and focusing on the things in our lives which do matter?


I have received a number of emails from people asking about my absence and what the status of the blog was, and regret not answering them, because I understand that the postings here resonated with many people. However, I am going to resume posting on this blog every Monday. I had not intended to restart where I had left off, but I do not think that, realistically, it is responsible to stop doing so, especially in the face of the path our worldwide civilization is taking. In spite of myself, I have spent the last few months studying and reflecting on collapse anyway, and look forward to continuing to share those insights with all of you.

Monday, July 30, 2012


With the record heat this summer, attention is turning back toward the dormant Sun's re-awakening, and what this could do to the various electronic devices we've come to depend on. One segment of technology that would be very vulnerable to a solar storm would be satellites. Satellites themselves are used for military purposes, but are also used for communication and orienteering. How many of us now have GPS devices, either standalone units or phone-based apps, to do our navigation in the car, or on a boat? For that matter, how long are satellites in orbit going to be maintained after our industrial civilization begins to crack up?

The importance of navigation and mapping is not something new, and has been a subject of much effort over the centuries. In the time of the Renaissance, for example, early navigational books, called "Rutters," were essentially regarded as state secrets, for a person who knew how to get from one place on the globe to another would have a huge advantage in trade and military matters. We look at maps made from the age of discovery and think how laughably inaccurate they are, but forget that at the time, these were a huge leap over having no idea what was out there at all.

People will be quick to point out that maps are both a combination of physical and conceptual data. We can't readily change features like mountains or rivers, but roads and towns can vanish, be reloacted, and so on. This is particularly true of many places which have grown up simply because there was cheap money to build something there. I think most of us know of a few "roads to nowhere" that were always very lightly traveled and existed only because some politician was able to appropriate some money for it. Likewise, there are "bedroom communities" that are located in the middle of nowhere, complete with a shopping mall, that exist simply because nothing else was there and gasoline was cheaper than land at the time. How quickly will these places vanish? If Life After People is a guide, maybe within a generation, and nature will have reclaimed them.

On the other hand, physical features don't change as quickly, and settlements which have grown up around them are more likely to exist and be maintained, especially around places which have running water or have been settled for access to renewable resources (good farming soil, timber, etc). This pattern of settlement was particularly true back before the invention of automobiles, when everyone had to walk or ride a wagon. Effectively, this means that we can expect that some places will still continue to have some human habitation, regardless of what is happening on a larger scale. Think of them as "buckets," where people will simply go (or stay) because it makes sense to do so.

The importance of saving maps is something which might be seen with a skeptical eye at first, but I think it is important for both practical reasons, and for cultural ones. It is in the absence of information that the imagination runs wild, for better or worse, and I'd guess it would take around a generation for people to go back to thinking the earth was flat, without any contradictory evidence. Storing history is no different -- how many people think Hitler was a Union general during the Civil War? From a practical standpoint, if we accept that we are going to rebuild to a sustainable level after a collapse, knowing what is out there, and where it's located at, is going to make life much easier for people who are trying to "re-connect" at some point.

It's worth pointing out two things that may not readily come to mind when we're putting a copy of Rand McNally on top of the heap of things to save. The first is that we should consider also preserving navigational instruments. A drafting compass, ruler, protractor, star chart, magnetic compass, etc, are also reasonably cheap and should last indefinitely if stored right. The other thing to consider is the form of the data itself. A road atlas is a convenient tool, but if I remember correctly, most of them do not include latitude and longitude as data. One possibility to explore (which would drastically cut down on storage space) would be storing maps which are lists of "vectors." A vector is a measure of angle, which usually represents force in a direction, but could also represent distance and location, meaning we could say that Town X is 45 degrees south of an arbitrary point at a distance of 40 miles. I haven't investigated enough yet to see if these are available, however.

Maps will have to be maintained, copied, and will be more prone to error as time goes on. However, we need to remember that if we are managing to make things work at a ninety-percent level, then we're still ahead of where we would be without that form of guidance. We aim for perfect accuracy in the storage of our information for future generations, but accept that anything we are doing is better than nothing at all.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Just a few quick tidbits, today.

I went to the mall yesterday to buy a couple of items. It's not a place I willingly spend time at, but when you need it, you need it. Inside, I was struck by the number of empty storefronts. Foot traffic was light, but given that it was the middle of the week in summer, not implausible. What I found funny was that there was a new mini-strip mall being put up right in front of the mall, on mall grounds. Wait a minute. Why not just use the existing space in the mall? But, really, this isn't much different from suburbanization. The city offers a greater diversity of social life and entertainment, yet people have been willing to abandon common sense to move to the suburbs into ticky-tacky houses, then trying to recreate the city living experience in the suburbs through all kinds of "shopping districts," parks, and whatnot. Even as the price of goods begins to shoot up as a logical consequence of energy scarcity, people are still holding onto these obsolete ideas.

Second is George Zimmerman. I don't know what branch of legal theory thinks that clients running off at the mouth is a good idea (Jerry Sandusky engaged in this particular sort of self-immolation at the beginning of the year, too), but I guess shooting Trayvon Martin is now part of "God's Plan." In truth, I hear this used more and more as an analytical tool. I'm not a particularly religious person, although I generally don't have a problem with religion as a worldview or ethical tool. However, I do have a problem with people who begin to ascribe things which are logically explainable as being the end result of some unseen divine process. This really points to nothing but mental laziness at a minimum, or delusion as a maximum. Either way, it points to a backsliding of people's willingness to use reason. And, I really have a problem with people who try to invoke God when they are on the hook for something. Look for this sort of thing more in the future, as people try to explain away events by suggesting they're part of "God's Plan" or optionally suggest that "God will save us." If anything, God gave us reason and memory, but people seem to have completely quit using those.

Next is the impending post office default. There are two ways of looking at this -- one is that the post office is a dinosaur and relic, in the face of email and package delivery services. The other is that this is an organization which is directly mandated by the Constitution to exist (I think the only other one is the Navy), yet is on life support. What does this really say about the stability of our government endeavors? If we can't salvage something that was one of the first things originally mandated by law, where does that leave the rest of the whole house of cards? Maybe this is the point where we can all feel a little like Simeon at the temple -- the sign that the prophecy of collapse is being fulfilled before our very eyes, whether we are ready for it or not, want it or not.

Last is the few news items that seem to be related to the acceleration of the collapse of the consumer class. Inflation is definitely here, one of the canaries in the coal mine. The price of meat, for example, is up around ten percent, and this was before the effects of the drought are really going to start to be felt. This is going to be part of the "death spiral" of consumerism -- people will start discarding the optionals and favor the essentials, something that has already shown up in the collapse of retail sales in June. I predict that you're going to start seeing a lot of things like "Five easy and delicious recipes using dried beans and rice" in the major media outlets. Of course, the feedback cycle of reduced consumer spending will hammer everything else in the economy, causing more people to be out of work, thus causing more businesses to go under and spending to go down, etc, etc. America has made a lifestyle and religion out of personal consumption, and built the entire social lifestyle around it. How readily are we going to go back to being satisfied with a game of checkers and wearing homespun?

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Hundredth Post

I started writing this blog a couple of years ago, on a rainy fall afternoon. At the time, the Gulf Oil Spill was still in and out of the headlines, with the well recently having been stopped up at least. There was still quite a lot of news coverage about the effects of the spill, who was responsible, what the lasting environmental damage was, and so on. As of today, the full impact of the spill is not known, but things like increases in the death rates of large marine mammals, mutations are widespread in smaller marine animals, and much of the information related to the environmental impact is still suppressed due to an "ongoing criminal investigation," so the full extent of damage may not be public for a long time, if ever.

Back in October of 2010, the event was still so fresh that these issues were not yet identified on any scale, but it was clear that we were dealing with something unprecedented related to the consequences of our reliance on cheap energy. If an oil well could blow and poison a massive body of water, what other consequences could the addiction to energy produce? Fukushima was still months off, but it seemed clear that the consequences had been identified, at least on some level. Remember, also, that this was two years into the global economic downturn, brought on by an addiction to spending and overconsumption, the need for MORE. In June of 2012, the gulf is still reeling from what was released into it, then dumped into it, Fukushima is still smoldering, real unemployment in America and elsewhere is around 20%, gas has not fallen back down to affordable levels, the stock market is increasingly looking like a minefield, pick something.

In the almost four years since October 2008, the world has not shown signs of recovery. The green shoots dry up and blow away as soon as they emerge, in spite of what optimists says, and another "downturn" is around the corner. These things are not "stumbles" on the road to a brave new epoch, but signs that we have exceeded our grasp as a civilization, both in terms of using them, and understanding them. Humanity has become the equivalent of a child who finds the door of the candy store unlocked and decides to go in and have "just one piece." With half the store eaten up, and a bellyache like no other, it's come time to decide how to proceed.

Is there a plan for dealing with the world, and a way forward to a more sane and sustainable civilization? Clearly, political "leadership" has become playing to the polls and trying to catch up with what people want to hear -- the expression "The American Way of Life is Not Negotiable" tells you all you need to hear about the attitude toward "American Exceptionalism." It's a grand, fine-sounding "line in the sand" type of expression, but falls short of physical reality.

The human imagination is both our greatest friend and worst foe. We can imagine wonderful things like travel to other stars, thinking computers, and worlds of fantasy. In the past, we've been able to implement some of these dreams, too, such as the airplane, the telephone, and so on. However, it's also our worst enemy in many ways. We become so focused on the "possible," that we ignore the "practical" and the "realistic."

Right now, we still have the ability, as a civilization, to begin examining our models and deciding what the best course to take is. There is still enough in the way of resources, wealth, and energy to begin promoting alternative ways of doing things. Rail, an end to widespread automobile use, turning grass into gardens, an end to consumerism and overspending. It's not a question of whether or not we need to make adjustments, but whether or not we will choose them or be forced into them. In this, civilization is not unlike a boat at sea with a storm coming -- we can choose our own harbor while there's still time, or get smashed against the rocks from forces we cannot control.

Unfortunately, like political leaders who adopt a "No Compromise" position on the consumer-driven lifestyle on campaign stumps, our society, from businesses, civic organizations, institutions of higher learning, religious organizations, down to individuals has also preferred to ignore reality and continue doing things as they have. After all, there is no such thing as Peak Oil, our oil-industry connected scientists tell us. Our bankers say there is no problem with the economy and not to worry. Our priests and preachers tell us "God will provide." All is well, don't worry.

For people who have taken the time to study the issue, and listen to the voices crying in the desert in the past such as Thomas Malthus and M. King Hubbert, who have examined the science and numbers, and even lies and distortions, for themselves, the picture is sobering, if not bleak. We have overshot our planet's carrying capacity for people by a factor of thirty or more, based on the use of fossil fuels to create massive short-term surpluses of artificial labor and resource utilization.

Think about that for a moment, and take a look around you. Count out thirty people. Pick one of them. The earth only has enough capacity for that one person, without the application of cheap energy to act as a surrogate "slave." This is less than the population of America, much less the world. It is a sobering exercise, but one we have ignored to the peril of our species and human civilization.

We are still collectively toward the cliff, but individually, we have begun to wake up, here and there. The critical model of mass consumption is not going to be untied and discarded on a mass scale, but we can begin to understand where we are headed and what our seat on that "bus" is going to be. Do we join in with the mass of people who are like bipedal locusts, congratulating themselves on their latest purchase? Or do we take a measured approach to life, live with low-impact, and prepare for when the "black swans" take to wing en masse?

The Leibowitz Society has gone through a couple of iterations since I originally defined it. In the beginning, I had looked at it as being a stuctured sort of thing, combining both a running analysis of our descent into a new Dark Age, with efforts to collect and store as much relevant knowledge as possible. Allied with these goals was the idea of trying to raise some level of awareness as to where we are, and what can be done about it, if anything, including defining how society may reorganize itself and what we can do as responsible people to make things better locally, even as they get worse globally.

Discussing the events leading to the Dark Age quickly moved the other considerations to the back burner, and I suppose it's a natural reaction. When Rome fell, there was a Dark Age on three continents (the Byzantine Empire survived, of course, but often felt "under siege" through most of its existence), as the mechanisms which had built daily life up to a high level fell apart. Now, America is stumbling and the coming Dark Age, brought on by resource scarcity, environmental failure, and economic mismanagement, is going to cover the entire globe. It will unfortunately be a collapse of unprecedented proportions, where the conditions on the other side of the globe will be no difference from what they are down the weed-dotted and decaying street. Like a train wreck, we can't look away from this.

However, the study of our near future is at some point going to become the study of our past, and it's the far future which will take precedence. As responsible people, we understand where the world is headed. We also know that this understanding doesn't lead to a comfortable complacency. We will all likely only live to see the early manifestations of the new Dark Age -- wars, riots, starvation, looting -- but our children and grandchildren will be there to see the dust settle and try to make sense of it all. They will have questions and will need answers. How did they get to where they're at? How to go forward? And what to go forward with?

One of the most sobering ancedotes I have ever read concerned a village in the south of France, not long after Rome collapsed. It had been an agricultural area, and it doesn't take much to imagine how many people it supported. Within a generation or two, human remains showed signs of starvation or even death by starvation, as the knowledge of high-intensity farming was quickly forgotten. And, this was just one village in one area. How many places like this existed, but were not known about in remains of Rome? This was not in a time and place where the science of agriculture depended on high technology to make it work, but on remembering procedures that had been discovered and modified over several generations. Even if we take slave labor out of the picture, figure that people would shift priority to food production away from whatever other pursuits they had.

If you take modern America, where even fewer people are connected to food production -- maybe three percent at most -- and most of them are involved in the "high energy input" tye of farming, are we going to fare much better when the cash runs out and the cupboard is bare? And what about other things, like medicine, governing ourselves, maintaining our structures, and so on?

We can save books on things that interest us, and it's a start, but we also need to think in broader terms. If we accept that information is DNA, then knowledge is an organism built from it. Do we really know what the books mean? And how to use them? Are we missing areas of knowledge that would be vital? Would we have any way to pass this on to another person or people? Or form a community of learning?

This was the original intention of the Leibowitz Society and where I want it to go toward again. This doesn't mean we can't talk about the path we're headed down, only that we need to think clearly about what we do once we get there. And it's likely that none of us will survive to see the "hard landing" when it finally happens. Rome's collapse took several generations. We started ours in 2008 and have not managed to reverse course, although we limp along, meaning our children or grandchildren will be the ones to see "lights out," more likely.

I don't see all this as being pessimistic, no more than someone who looks up at a darkening sky and says it's going to rain is being a pessimist. We're gifted with reason and foresight and would be fools not to use them. We can make a difference in our futures, and the futures of people yet to come, by taking steps now to preserve thousands of years of wisdom and knowledge, and having a plan to pass it on. The problems we face now are not going to go away, but only get worse, and it's up to us to light the future.

Monday, July 2, 2012


One of the issues that confronts people grapping with how to prepare for the coming collapse and new Dark Age (or how to deal with it, now that it's here, depending on how you measure things), is when to make that jump from a citizen of the modern industrial world to a tribesman of the post-collapse, post-industrial world. Humans are binary thinkers, so it all-too-often becomes an "all or nothing" affair. In other words, people might stock up on some supplies, but continue living the SUV McMansion lifestyle. Or, they may sell off anything of value in the modern world and start raising their own free-range bean sprouts and using nothing more technological than a candle.

One reader recently pointed out that the real issues is "timing" when to go all-in with preparing for collapse. Others have pointed out that our collapse is gradual in nature, maybe taking a generation or more to complete (although, there are plenty of Black Swans flapping around all over the place to definitely wreak havoc with whatever plans we've made regarding collapse). It's really not a trivial question. If we don't match our efforts to the current reality, we are setting ourselves back in one direction or another. The person who refuses to accept the idea of collapse, or who waits too long to start dealing with it, is going to be living an obsolete lifetyle, while the person who jumps in with both feet at this point is risking losing access to resources that they would otherwise have been able to use.

My general rule of thumb in life is that you between two extremes, you can generally count on the middle interpretation to be right. For us, using that idea means that we accept the reality of looming collapse, but try to take advantage of what the industrial world still has to offer, with the recognition that it won't be around forever. This means that we have to start planning for the post-industrial world, as well as the role of our lives in it, and how we plan to adapt to it. While this may come on a slower pace than some expect, we're four years on into the first great upheavel related to Peak Oil and Peak Wealth, and the flow of good economic news like in years past has instead become a thin trickle of perpetual promises and little in the way of delivery on that hope.

While things look bleak at the cultural level, we can start adapting and making changes in our lives. People have kicked around the term "downshifting" before, and I think it's a nice metaphor for what we're doing at the end of the Peak Age. But the question always remains of how to define it and how to practice it.

Most activities in our lives can be categorized into things we have to do and things we want to do. While people may argue the point that we have to work (sometimes, quite successfully), most people reading this have or have had jobs at some point. A modern job is usually directly tied into the exploitation of surplus which has been the economic model of the world for the past two hundred or so years. Short of changing or abandoning our source of income, there's not a lot we can do to "downshift" in that area without being considerably creative. On the other hand, everything we do outside of work is a good candidate for reexamination into how we could begin to adapt our lives into a post-Peak age.

Sports is one area which comes readily to mind. Widespread, well-organized team sports are a child of the industrial age. The leisure time needed to play them, plus the manicured facilities and equipment, plus the accepted risk of debilitating injury, means that they are probably going to get increasingly scarce as times goes on. Other sports like golf require precision equipment and dedicated grounds to enjoy (although I can see "rough" golf persisting, like the way the game was originally played, the other point of downshifting is to prepare for the new Dark Age while still finding a niche for these activities in our daily lives). If we still want to participate in sports, what can we do to "downshift"? For the person who wants a more intense and physical activity, I would suggest participating in some form of martial arts or historical fencing. These skills are going to be useful down the road, and a person could conceivably be able to barter some teaching time in return for lodging, food, or other compensation (this was the case back in the Middle Ages and even earlier). If a person doesn't want the intense workout from martial arts, backpacking or hiking is basically golf without the fancy drivers and the drinking, usually costing a lot less and providing better exercise.

Food production is another area which comes to mind. People like to garden as a hobby, but how high are their energy inputs and are they gardening with the idea of transitioning to subsistence food production? Most people are going to be personally a lot more involved in agriculture, so practicing this now is a good idea, but do we do it in a realistic manner? Gardening is labor-intensive, but we can begin to use organically fertilized raised beds and other high-yd techniques to cut down on the labor or industrial tool input we would need. When we're growing plants, do we choose things which have good nutritional value or do we grow things on a whim? Are we practicing our food preservation techniques on the surplus? And do we practice seed saving instead of buying seed packets each spring?

Speaking of food, cooking is another area where we can downshift and begin to practice for a post-collapse world, while still living in the Peak Age. Do we know how to make cheese from excess milk? Or how to make wine or mead from excess honey and fruit? Are we familiar with how to smoke or salt meat to preserve it? And how to cook on a wood fire instead of a stove?

Reading comes to mind, too. We can choose both the content and the medium of what we read. The battery lifespan of a Kindle or Nook is limited, and won't run without power in any event. Downshifting here means going back to paper for our books. And what do we read, anyway? Techno-thrillers where the world is nearly saved by the last page, or books that will teach us how to prepare for the new Dark Age? And do we have books of quality that we can pass onto the next generation? (acid free paper, etc)

If we choose to watch TV, are we watching gossip programs and sports, or are we watching programs which will educate us?

When we think of purchasing firearms or bows, are we buying higher-tech items, or are we thinking about the long-term? Modern firearms are very complex and would be difficult to service or repair, plus ammunition will grow increasingly scarce (or simply become non-functional with age). Building and learning how to use flintlocks would be a good skill to have, plus these items can be passed down to the next generations. Likewise with bows -- do we buy compound bows or do we buy/learn how to make odler bow designs?

Housing also comes to mind. I've written previously about how ill-suited modern houses are to being used in a post-collapse world, plus they often come with an unusuable amount of ground. For people who are considering buying a home, building, or relocating, are we moving to someplace that will be untenable in the days ahead when the power grid eventually begins to fail, or is it someplace we will be relatively comfortable and self-sufficient in? Is there room to do some small-scale agriculture, and so on? For people who want to remodel, likewise, why not do it in a way that will serve you well when the lights go out and candles are the primary form of illumination?

There are some areas which absolutely cannot be translated to the coming collapse, and we just have to recognize that we are wasting time and money on them if we engage in them. Among them are video gaming (hard to run with the power off and I'm skeptical of arguments like "Fallout teaches me how to survive in a hostile world"), expensive vacations (going to Vegas, Europe, etc), wealth building through investments (the only safe investment these days seems to be hard goods like gold and silver and even these cannot be translated to useful items in a post-crash world), and collecting otherwise worthless items (stamps, baseball cards, etc). I'm sure readers could name several more complete wastes of time and resources, too. If we choose to engage in these, we have to do so knowing that we're not ever going to see a return on them.

Downshifting is a rational response to the changing world. When we do this, we're like the animal who is growing a thicker coat in response to cooling weather, or the tree whose leaves are changing colors. We know what's coming, and what we need to do to prepare for it, but we also recognize that we are still part of a different world, even if it's one which is coming to an end at some point, to be replaced with something completely different. We don't have to lose hope, but just have to recognize where we can make changes that will make sense for us in this generation and our children in the next.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Turkey and Syria

For those who haven't been paying attention, Syria shot down a Turkish RF-4E Phantom the other day. The RF-4E is a two-seat fighter that has been converted to be an unarmed photo-recon plane, used for basically taking pictures of enemy positions and whatnot. While overflights of Syrian territory and reconnaissance has probably been happening for some time, this is the first time that Syria took action, or was able to take action against Turkey's reconaissance efforts.

While I don't know what Turkey's policy with regard to keeping an eye on the Syrians has been to this point, I would guess that they have been proactive, relying both on satellite survillence from other NATO members, as well as ground, air, and electronic surveillance. Turkey shares a lengthy border with Syria, so the events occurring there are going to be of concern to them. If nothing else, the possibility of waves of refugees spilling over into Turkey from a potential all-out civil war would create a serious headache for the Turkish government.

There is also the ongoing Kurdish question. Occupying parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, the Kurdish people have a strong nationalist streak and feel that they deserve a specific Kurdish homeland. While Iraq has granted a semi-autonomous region to the Kurds, the other three nations still essentially do not recognize a separate Kurdish identity. Turkey, in particular, has been involved with an ongoing low-intensity conflict with ethnic Kurds that doesn't show signs of abating. A collapse of the Syrian government could lead to the Syrian Kurdish minority essentially declaring regional autonomy and potentially giving support to the Kurds in Turkey, which would be an unacceptable situation to the Turkish government.

Last, Turkey is a member of NATO, and NATO has been gradually more involved in the various events related to the "Arab Spring." There have probably been behind-the-scenes talks about using Turkey as a staging area for intervention in Syria if it is decided that armed intervention is necessary and in the interests of NATO. Recon flights and other reconaissance would certainly be a prelude to that.

On paper, and in reality, military intervention in Syria by Turkey would probably be a fairly one-sided affair if it happened. Syrian's military basically a time capsule of dating to the fall of the Soviet Union, while Turkey has continually upgraded their armed forces. In addition, Turkey constantly participates in exercises with other NATO members and has experience deploying for various peacekeeping exercises and in support of other interventions. There would likely be air support from NATO nations, as well. Given that Syria is already politically divided, and the military probably is loyal to Assad for the reason of patronage (similar to Libya), there would probably be less chance of a long-term insurgency developing like with Iraq.

However, the long-term and larger effects of an intervention in Syria aren't clear. Russia has warned NATO about intervention in Syria, considering it to still be in their sphere of influence. While opinions vary on Russian willingness to respond to an intervention in Syria, or what the true Russian ability to do so is, Russia still maintains roughly a corps-sized airborne force, as well as an an air force potentially capable of projecting power into Syria, or striking targets in Turkey. Whether or not Russia would intervene in this case is an open question, but consider that Russian recently renewed arms contracts worth several billion with Syria, maintains strong ties with Syria, and is upgrading a port for Russian naval use. Remember that no one really thought that the Chinese would intervene in Korea as UN forces approached the Chinese border.

At a minimum, it could be reasonably expected that even a limited war in Syria would destabilize an already-shaky world market. Spillover into a broader conflict would probably reverse whatever progress toward a "recovery" has been made over the last few years and send Europe into a crisis. Quite a lot of trade flows through the region, including through the Suez Canal (only a few hundred miles south of Syria). While memories of the "Yellow Fleet," for example, have faded, shipping and insurance companies have been feeling financial pressure due to piracy and may decide to avoid an increasingly unstable region, between Egypt, Syria, and Libya.

While Turkey intervening in Syria isn't likely, and the outcome of an intervention, if it happened, is open to question, the point still lingers that we can't readily predict what the long-term effects will be. Things can get out of hand very easily, or there may be long-lasting effects and emergent properties that no one accounted for before things got rolling. We can only watch and wait and see if this is a flash in the pan or another crack in the wall of modern industrial civilization.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Rifleman

People who have read this blog over the last couple of years know that I don't spend a lot of time talking about one of the more popular collapse-related topics -- firearms and self-defense. This is not because I don't believe that there is a need for or right to self-defense, and not because I don't see a utility use for firearms, but I because I think that access to and use of firearms is going to be less common in a post-collapse world than people expect it to be. People sometimes seem to hoard weapons like there actually will be some sort of zombie apocalypse, or they will be the first line of defense against an invading foreign army, or... This costs a lot of money at times, makes a nice attractive target for thieves, may cause you to run into legal trouble, and generally misses the point of global collapse. A new Dark Age isn't going to be resolved in a generation or so, and ammo on average only lasts 40-50 years before primer and powders begin to go bad.

On the other hand, there are situations where firearms will likely be useful and handy items, potentially even lifesavers. The ubiquitous 9mm pistol is probably the ideal sidearm, in whatever brand you pick. There are a lot of options for rifles as well, from old-style lever actions to $3000+ M-14 clones. Plenty has also been written about the AR-15 family, and it is well-represented in the "prepper" circles. However, modern semi-auto rifles are complex items with plenty of moving parts. While they are relatively reliable, there is still the issue of either stocking plenty of spare parts, or potentially having to improvise a fix. They can be more finicky about ammunition (steel cases don't always extract right in AR-15s, and bullet weight can affect functioning in other rifles). Also, they are not legal in some places, and may raise eyebrows in others. Lever-action rifles are generally restricted in available calibers, and while some people advocate them because you can have a pistol that fires the same cartridge as a rifle, this tends to limit the functionality of the rifle (i.e. nothing bigger than a .44 Magnum) and mean that a person is likely going to be forced into using a revolver as the matching pistol (.357 or .44 generally).

Bolt-action hunting rifles are another option. They are readily available, usually don't suffer from legal restrictions, are relatively inexpensive (I think a Ruger M77, for example, sells for around $650 or so, and used hunting rifles of all types can be found for much less than retail, with only a little use), have simple mechanicals, come in a wide variety of calibers, and can use various types of bullets without problem. There are some drawbacks to bolt-action hunting rifles, however. They are generally designed to exclusively be used with scopes, which means that most of them don't come with iron sights (for shooting without a scope). Scopes are also mounted in a "short eye relief" position, and are usually higher magnification (3 to 9 power, at least), meaning the shooter will have a limited field of vision through the scope at closer rangers, and will also have a shooting posture that isn't as "natural" as using a rifle without a scope would often.

To address these problems, some years ago Jeff Cooper defined a concept called the "Scout Rifle," which was meant to basically be the most practical all-around rifle, capable of both self-defense and hunting, able to bring down game at a decent range, a good caliber, light, and able to withstand various weather conditions. In other words, if you had to spend some time in the bush, the rifle which would be able to do whatever you wanted it to, and not make an unpleasant companion, due to size or weight. Commonly chambered for .308 Winchester, it has become a "niche" rifle for people looking for the most practical all-around longarm.

It's these same qualities which make it an ideal type of rifle for people concerned with post-collapse needs. People may object to having a rifle with a limited rate of fire for defense, but a bolt action can be worked relatively quickly, and I would also ask exactly what people seem themselves doing once the stores close and gas dries up. Are they trying to get by on a daily basis or are they looking for trouble they don't need to find?

As for the rifle itself, "Scout Rifle" is a generic term, but various examples have been put into production by several companies, or a person can take an existing bolt-action rifle and modify it to this type of configuration. The exact criteria is: 6.6 pounds or less, 36 inches or less in length, forward-mounted low-power telescopic sight, "ghost ring" iron sights in case the scope is damaged, "Ching Sling" (fast adjustment sling), .308 Win/7mm-08 Rem/.243 Win caliber, and able to hold a two-inch group at 100 yards. Steyr, Ruger, and Savage make rifles that meet this criteria, in a wide range of prices. It is also possible for a person to assemble a Scout Rifle using an off-the-shelf rifle in a suitable caliber and modifying it. For those on a budget, a possible conversion would be taking a Mosin-Nagant carbine as the base rifle, or an SMLE "Carbine."

Of course, the rifle is only half the equation. The person pulling the trigger is just as important. Proper instruction on operation and safety, as well as time at the range to learn how to shoot, is vital. Rifles may be easier to shoot than pistols, but people who go to the range once a year to "sight it in" with a handful of rounds, and do nothing else, aren't doing themselves any favors.

While some people are not comfortable with firearms, they do serve a legitimate purpose and need at times. Even if not necessary for self-defense or hunting, livestock protection is a valid use. Realistically, most people are probably not going to need a battery of military-grade semi-auto rifles with night vision and hundred round drum magazines. If you want that, tt's fine, but I would guess it would be money that could be going to something else. On the other hand, a good working rifle, designed to be a jack-of-all-trades, might be far more useful in daily life and be there "when you need it."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Drachma Drama

Summer has always been the slow news time, as everyone vacates the various capitols and boardrooms, and heads for the Hamptons or the Riviera for a little R&R. Unfortunately, the global financial overreach (driven on by MBAs and financial hustlers who liked to talk about the "velocity of money," while pursuing One More Deal like it was the Great White Whale) isn't taking a vacation, and its unsavory cousin, Peak Oil, is threatening to show up on the doorstep at any day.

The idea of elections is a curious thing. Each person casts a vote for who and what they want to be ruled by. Often, it's a little like children being given a choice between brussel sprouts or cooked cabbage for dinner. Neither is all that appetizing, but the crucial point that is missed is that the child has their own mind, and would prefer ice cream over either vegetable. In their mind, if they're being given the authority to make a choice, they should also be given the authority to determine what choices they can make.

Likewise with voting. Greece was grappling with the ideas of voting, democracy, and civics in an age when most of the rest of Europe had yet to form any kind of national identity. These are not people who are giddy with the idea of electoral participation, but inevitably see it as either an obstacle or vehicle to where their vision of society needs to be, depending on which side of the vote they're on. People tend to forget that if fifty-one percent of the people vote a certain way on an issue, forty-nine percent are voting the other way and are not going to be happy about "losing." (witness the hard feelings over the 2000 American election for president, which is still brought up now and then by Democrats)

The forty-nine percent isn't going to go away in Greece any time soon. While it's all but gone from American memories, Greece was the scene of a nasty civil war between the left and the right in the wake of World War 2. Given that the hard left was busy reasserting itself during the electoral process, it's not all that hard to imagine that they're not going to quietly fade back into the woodwork, given that their recent rise was due in part to what was seen as unfavorable conditions being placed on Greece in the first place.

In truth, reading over the various post-election reports seems almost like talking to a person who has decided against divorce "for the sake of the children," or some other abstract reason. The antagonism is still there, Greeks are not happy, and it's going to be a matter of time before things get shaken up again and divorcing the rest of Europe begins to once more look like a good move. The only difference is that the next time around, the discussion probably isn't going to be as civilized, since the opinion of Europe is going to be that Greece has tacitly agreed to maintaining its position as part of Europe and will be expected to fulfill that agreement.

The elections still really don't address the looming problem, however, of financial overshoot by most governments. We seem to be moving from the idea that a government is sound if it takes in more than it spends to the idea that a government is sound if it can find someone to let it run up a tab. In America, the discussion is no longer about "reducing the debt," but "reducing the deficit," as if running up only 1.1 trillion a year of new debt is somehow vastly better than running up 1.3 trillion a year. There is only so much wealth to go around in the world, so much land to be developed and resources to be exploited.

At the end of the day, there's all kinds of financial structures which have been built up on the idea of unlimited growth, and a whole percentage of the population that has been carried forth on that idea, and now the limits are being felt. The decision to have Greece stay in the Eurozone is occurring in the context of a new global recession which is being darkly hinted at, but people are not noticing yet, still surrounded by their gadgets and illusions. Having Greece remain in Europe with another downturn may eventually become a moot point when another wave of financial disaster hits, like what housing did in 2008. What's next? Global currencies themselves? They may be pegged to each other for the most part, but if people quit accepting them in favor of hard goods, for example, then all bets are off.

Greece still seems to end up being a microcosm of what most people still seem to be thinking these days all over the globe. Keep the party going a little longer, keep pretending that there's even a party going on. The problem is that the food and booze ran out a long time ago and all people are left with now is a stomach full of greasy food and a pounding headache. The prospect of waking up to a newer, uglier day still has yet to cross their minds.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Hearth and Home

The Euro panic keeps going and going. If the end of the EU was a disaster flick, it would be shown as a multi-year series, maybe studded with the usual standby roster of not-quite A-listers, all desperate to keep their face on the screen, hoping for a mid-career boost back to Cannes. It would definitely not be a two-hour feature film, a back-room, caviar-laced version of Armageddon, featuring Bruce Willis managing the global financial crisis with a steely eye, while an Aerosmith ballad played in the background.

This is how collapse seems to go, a long, slow event, better imagined as the Galaxy of Unrestrained Hope and Cornucopian Optimism, colliding with the galaxy of Physical and Financial Reality, all while accompanied by a Strauss waltz. We know what the outcome is, where we're going at the end of it, but become self-improsed refuseniks, not wanting to leave the land of Plenty for the land of Adjustment. Adjustment itself is a nuanced word and implies a lot of things, most of them not so good. It is a word of acceptance, when reality runs over our dreams, and we reassemble the pieces into something that we make ourselves live with, even though it's a long way from Optimum.

This is where we are at the beginnings of the new Dark Age. This paradigm is well-played out in the situation of the twenty-five or so percent of the population that is unable to find work that matches their skills and expectation. Maybe colleges would be better off offering the "Bachelor of Barsita-ing" instead of Film, Philosophy, and all the other things a society in decline has little need of. That doesn't address the auto and factory workers who spent half their adult life at positions which are no more likely to return than a helium balloon released by accident in a moment of overexuberant play.

Reality is slowing pushing us into making different choices and thinking in new ways. One place it still doesn't seem to have caught up is with the "prepping" movement. The notion seems to exist that everything will turn bad for a couple of years, then return to normal, and all that is needed is to have a basement full of MREs and a few guns to shoot the horde of starving people that show up to claim them. The fact is that 2001 was an "overshoot" and a warning sign that we were pushing against the limits of growth. 2008 was when the rubber band snapped and it became clear that the lights were starting to go out, for good.

How do people find their way back from a collapse, when there's nothing to find their way back to, anyway? We grow up with the expectation of always being able to run to the store to pick up something for dinner. At some point, the Wal-Mart is going to become "Home to Pigeons and Rats Mart." I've done a little urban exploration, traversing buildings that have outlived their usefulness. I think it's a good illustration for where we'll be at, after a few more years of the present upheavals. For anyone who thinks this isn't where we're headed, take a look around. How many business do you see that have closed up, or are on the verge? How many buildings stand empty now?

Prepping is, in some ways, an optimistic activity assumes we can find our way back at some point. Realism assumes that the door is closed behind us, for good. It's not enough to think anymore in terms of "a rainy day," but we need to think in terms now of a new era of human life. What happens when the palette of ramen noodles in our suburban McMansion runs out, and we have 1/4 acre of land to try farming on? Prepping can't be a matter of trying to replicate or maintain our present life, but needs to shift to the idea of trying to function in a time and place when the old ways of doing things are gone and the new ways are the same as the old old ways.

Medicine, food, transportation, entertainment, social interaction and organization, these are all things which are going to shift from the high-energy input, semi-anonymous methods of existence, and become slower, more effort-filled, and more personalized. Are we prepared for these shifts? Does the average office worker have any idea what a full day labor in the fields feels like? Or does the average modern suburbanite have any notion of what it's like to live in a house during winter that's only marginally warmer than being outside? Or when the idea of a big trip becomes walking a town or two over to catch an open-air play?

We probably don't like the idea of these kinds of adjustments, not having asked for it or considered it, but things are forced on us sometimes, like it or not. We've all benefitted from 180 or so years of massive expansion of human luxury, but never asked when, where, and how it would end. Now, like how the idea of pan-European culture died with a pair of gunshots in the Balkans, triggering the First World War, the collapse of a single nation in the Balkans is going to destroy the idea of globalism, and with it all the things built on top of it. The wise response now is to recognize reality and align our lives with what the future holds, not what the past brought.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Hot and Hazy

Summer seems to be getting an early start this week, with forecasted highs coming close to records that have stood for sixty or seventy years now. This on the heels of a winter-that-wasn't-a-winter, so the countryside was flush with vegetation a month or two ahead of schedule. I'll make an easy prediction now that we can look forward to lots of verbal battles between people who advance theories of global warmings, and those who argue against them. Leading the way on the anti-side will be the pundits like Rush Limbaugh, who have zero scientific training or knowledge, versus people on the pro-side who accuse people like him of wanting to destroy the earth and life on it.

That's a simplification, of course, but I think it illustrates at least the caricatures of where people stand on the issue. I don't really pay much attention to the debate on manmade global warming, as I think we're likely to do ourselves in as a civilization before it will ultimately become a serious issue. However, I do listen to Limbaugh from time to time while driving and caught a tidbit along the lines of "Folks, if we had to heat up the earth, we could never manage that. Only God could do something like that." That anyone could take him seriously after a tidbit like that goes to show that his audience is no more sensible than he is. Again, while I don't really pay a lot of attention to the theory, it seems that statements like that at least tip the credibility scale toward scientists who actually try to seriously study the issue.

In a lot of ways, the cultural crisis which is starting to shake up human society seems to be cut from the same cloth. Why the term "cultural crisis," anyway, and not "economic crisis?" Think about this, though -- an economic crisis implies problems with the economy, confined to the economy. The Great Depression generally fell into this category, where people had built an economic model that had some serious problems, but the overall culture was relatively sound. When the economy collapsed, people were able to still get by, and had some idea of where they were going as a nation and a people (in contrast, look at Nazi Germany, which was the product of a destroyed German culture in the wake of World War One). Now, the problem is so much greater and is no longer really confined to just one aspect of human society. America is stumbling, has no idea of what values it should be embracing (we have Jersery Shore on one hand, we have Joel Osteen on the other, with NASCAR and militarism in between).

The rest of the world is largely in the same boat, too, because the economy and consumption have become the end-game of all human effort everywhere. People measure who they are by what they have. When you have it, then what? Things rust and rot away, or we just get bored with them, like a middle aged salesman with his wife, and go chase something new. The ancient Greeks put stock in philosophy and learning, the Romans in tradition, the medieval European in religion, the Chinese in meditations on the nature of things, Enlightement thinkers in science and natural philosophy, early Americans in rights and law...and modern Americans in phantom things like Facebook stock.

A Dark Age is a combination of many things, part of it a time when there is no longer enough of an input of energy to sustain the socioeconomic models that people have built, but it's also a time when old ideas that have carried us forward die. With the Greeks, it came when the notion of pan-Hellenism died out during the Peloponnesian War, the Romans when perpetual conquest could not be sustained, and in the modern day when the idea of perpetual growth and consumption run into the reality of limited energy and markets.

In the end, it's not unlike the global warming debate -- we see what we want to see, put so much faith into an idea, that we conflate our existence with that idea and mindset. Now, we're facing the fact that our models are broken and we still cannot come to grips with that, preferring to deny that there is even a fundamental problem with things and that life as we know it can't go on forever. Traditionally, the summer has always been a slow news season, as people vacate Washington to go on vacation, but the Greek crisis hasn't resolved itself (the Greeks not even knowing who they want to lead them), the French are still pursuing their own broken model, and America is forced into an election that will change nothing, because reality itself has begun to catch up with the process.

We may be coming up on a very hot and hazy summer indeed.

Friday, May 18, 2012

It's Material

The blessing, and eventual problem, of living in an industrial society, is that we are surrounded by lots of mass produced items we become dependent on for functioning. These things are often not made to last more than a few years, much less a generation or more, because they can be easily replaced, and because the people who manufacture them will go out of business if they don't. In fact, there is often such a surplus of manufactured goods that it sometimes make more short-term economic system to discard things people don't know what to do with than it does to sell them. One of my first jobs was working at a retail store that sold appliances. It was not uncommon for us to be told to throw a perfectly good returned or "scratch and dent" washer or dryer away, instead of marking it down and making it available for a customer. The problem was that a new unit could be sold in its place, and the company could still make more off of selling the new unit, and discarding the old, than it could by a mark-down. At least to the credit of the people I worked with, none of us was ever happy about having to do that and realized what a complete waste it was.

As a society, we still tend to operate the same way, even if we don't often think much about it. Most clothing really isn't purchased with the intent of durability over time. Elastic, for example, will tend to get brittle after a period of non-use. I was surprised when I pulled out a pair of socks the other day that I'd had for just a couple of years and heard the characteristic "crackle" of broken-down elastic. If we have the foresight to stock up on a few extra pairs of socks or underwear, are we taking this into account? Our ancestors made do just fine with underwear that used drawstrings and ties, if they wore any at all (see this).

Plastics, likewise, can break down over time, especially when exposed to sunlight. So can rubber tires (which is where "dry rot" comes from, having nothing to do with exposure to water). Our snazzy new greenhouse covers might look nice now, but what happens when they yellow and turn opaque from micro-cracks? Or the plastic handle on our mass-produced hoe or shovel snaps? Wooden handles, cared for, will last forever. Also, consider the problem of plastic pistols, such as Glocks. They have a claimed lifespan of one hundred years or more, but none of them have been around for more than thirty or so years, so who knows? (although, in fairness, ammunition's shelf life is generally between 20-40 years)

Even engines and modern vehicles are problematic, with ten or fifteen years doing pretty good on most things powered by internal combustion. I talked in my last practical commentary about the maintenance that vehicles require, and the need to find practical alternatives for transportation, both personal, and of goods. One thing that people might consider purchasing is a Vermont garden cart. My parents had one of these, didn't take good care of it, and it lasted for twenty or so years before finally falling apart due to neglect, not any flaw in the cart itself. While this is a mass-produced item, it is made to last for generations, and can be bought with solid rubber tires for durability.

People who "prep" always seem to operate from the assumption that the lights will come back on at some point, and Wal Mart can be cleaned up and re-opened after a few years of rot. Freeze-dried food and a locker full of ammunition are nice, I suppose, but the reality is that the lifestyle shift brought on by the new Dark Age is going to require an evaluation of how we live our daily lives and what we can do to best adjust. It's not the dramatic things which are going to make a difference to most people, but the simple items which made life easier for our ancestors, when our idea of a "Dark Age" was their idea of normal life.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Chase-ing Rainbows

When I first started this blog, I was a little worried about finding things to write about. I guess if I was writing on advances in humanist philosophy, the pickings might be a little dry, but when you're writing about the slow-motion collapse of modern industrial civilization, you have the opposite problem -- trying to cover all the little mini-fires and negative trends.

Today's news really isn't a surprise, but another banking scandal just erupted with the announcement of Chase blowing $2 billion in trading losses. Of course, heads are already rolling because of this, but let's break the situation down a little. Ina Drew, the scapegoat for this brewing scandal is being out of managing a division which apparently worked with around $360 billion dollars in assets. Pulling out the calculator shows that this was a loss of 0.55 % of these assets. That's a little over one-half of one percent. Statistically speaking, this is nothing.

So why the head-rolling? Reading on, we see that Jamie Dimon apparently had "encouraged" her to take these risks. What does "encouraged" mean in the context of a CEO speaking? Especially at one of the world's leading banks? I wasn't a fly on the wall, but I'd guess it's something along the lines of "make something happen or make way for someone else." Of course, the D-word pops up in this narrative, too -- derivatives. The real story here, I think, is the fact that a bank CEO is pushing for taking more risks in the first place. The recession has not ended, the world is still reeling globally from a long series of screwed-up moves by banks, and no one knows where the path out of the mess is.

At the same time as this news, is the announcment that California's new budget shortfall is $16 billion, up from $9 billion. That would be pretty sobering news in good economic times, but in the continuing New Great Depression, how do you begin to make that up? There are only two real alternatives -- cut spending or raise taxes. Cutting spending is going to reduce the amount of money available for education, law enforcement, infrastructure, etc. In other words, all the things that make a region attractive to people and businesses in the first place. The other option is to raise taxes some more, and see another "Atlas Shrugged" moment like are becoming popular in places like France, where rich people leave so they can try to remain rich for a while longer.

Sadly for Jerry Brown, California can't print it's own money, like Congress can. Like most states and cities, people were content to live it up and enjoy the excesses of prosperity, without realizing that prosperity can eventually fall on hard times and incoming tax revenues will sooner or later be "disappointing."

Last, Greece is back in the news again. The funny thing is that if Europe itself was healthy, it would've tossed the sick man of the EU overboard long ago. Unfortunately for proponents of European unity, this would just make everyone in Berlin (perhaps the only really healthy Eurozone country left) ask tough questions like "Hey, if we got rid of Greece, why is Spain in our little club?" I guess enough people in Europe still see enough of value in the EU to determine that the modern-day version of the Hanseatic League needs to limp along until the fiction that it was ever a workable idea can be done away with.

The common thread in all these stories is still the denial of reality and living in the mindset of the past. A bank CEO decides that risky behavior is just fine, even after too much risk almost torpedoed the world economic system. A state governer admits that the state has been leaving in a budgetary dream world. And an economic union pretends that booting one bad apple will get rids of the worms in the rest of the system. It's all about living in a dream world.

We still have enough "slack" to make some intelligent decisions about our future -- downscaling, modifying, adapting -- to where the loss of cheap energy and abundant resources can be offset by good planning. The problem is that we cannot let go of the past, of the notion that we can have "forever growth" and endless bounty. Reality has already begun to catch up to people -- those who have seen their unemployment run out, those who were conned into mortgaging their future for the promise of a good job, and those who have worked hard their entire lives to enjoy the fruits of their labor, only to find those fruits have rotted. At some point, it's going to catch up to everyone all around the world, then we're going to see the new Dark Age show itself in full glory.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


I noticed the brief back-and-forth exchange on vehicles in comments on my Monday column. The topic of transportation is one which comes up from time to time, but doesn't really get as much discussion in preparedness circles as do things like food storage and weapons. I think it's a natural progression -- after all, the modern car is very much an item which is dependent on a long "tail" of industrial production, fuel production, road maintenance, regular repair and upkeep, and so on. Car ownership, even of a smaller or older car, is very expensive in actual economic terms.

When people think in terms of collapse, there is a real question in the air, too. If we see the death of modern industrial civilization, just where do we actually plan to go with ourselves? When the Wal-Marts of the world close, and eventually collapse in on themselves because they're not built to last the ages, is there a point to having a car? You can drive up, take a look around an overgrown parking lot, watch the birds nesting in rusting trusses, then leave. As a whole, do we expect to really travel all that far in the future, anyway? After all, governments are starting to replaced paved roads with gravel roads.  Is replacing the gravel with dirt all that far behind?

The price and availability of oil is also another big question mark. As it dries up, there is less capacity to operate cars. For all the talk of falling oil prices, gasoline is still around $3.75 a gallon, and people who expect it to return to $1.50 a gallon are delusional. It's conceivable to power cars with alcohol, or even steam, but how much effort is expended on doing this that could be put to other uses? Cars themselves also require tires, batteries, and oil, as expendable supplies that cannot be easily replaced, stored, or duplicated.

Mobility in the past hundred years has been something of an anamoly anyway. Prior to the Industrial Age, it was unusual for people to travel long distances. Anything more than a day's walk was considered a major trip. There was a reason that a pilgrimage to the "Holy Land" was quite an accomplishment.

It seems logical that relying on mechanized transport may be a fool's game. However, we don't necessarily have the luxury of chucking our cars just yet. Most of us live some distance from our employer, or from stores, etc. Few people are self-reliant or live in an area where there isn't a need to travel for necessities. Options such as horseback travel are even less practical than cars right now, and bicycles don't make sense except in limited circumstances.

Discussion about the future is something else, however. We tend to think of transportation in personal terms -- i.e., how do I get to work or the store? The reality is that transportation of goods, produce, and materials will probably be a more important consideration. Wooden wheels can be manufactured relatively simply, and a person can pull a cart much more easily than they can carry the same amount of goods. Animal transport can also be used to haul goods and people. Remember that even as late as WW2,Germany made standard use of horse-drawn wagons for transport.

Bicycles also seem to be a viable alternative for a while, at least until supplies of tires and chains run out. Solid bicycles tires are available, and while I don't know about dry-rot, it seems like if they are stored in the generic "cool, dry place," bicycle transport could conceivably be available for a couple of generations after cars. One caveat, however, is to assume that roads are going to be increasingly rough and mountain bikes would be preferred over other kinds. Bulk transportation by bicycle doesn't seem as practical as by animal, but I guess could be done in limited cases.

The truth is, any discussion about automobiles tends to return us to the reality of seeing the coming collapse, but also understanding that we're straddling two ages -- the consumerist age, and the post-consumerist age. To live in one, we generally have to think in ways which are alien to the other. The key is to live in such a way that we can address the needs of the present while preparing for the future.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Posterity Measures

The French elections will probably be commented on for a while, the victory of Francois Hollande, a socialist, raising the hackles of various commentators and likely prompting some discussion on the "inevitable linkage" between the new French president and Obama.  Fortunately, it's probably easier to make sense of this than it is of neo-Nazis picking up seats in Greek elections.

Taken at face value, the election appears to be a referendum on the austerity measures that Sarkozy favored, and a return to the notion of lowering retirement ages and funding more public sector workers, and all the other cornucopian ideas that come from good intentions and a winning smile. However, I think there are some crucial points being missed from the media analysis which give some insight into why the French voted the way they did, as well as insights into which way nations will choose to act as resources become scarcer and the money dries up.

France is a very, very old country. Assuming we date it from Francia, it is around 1800 years old, and has been a political, social, and economic powerhouse for much of its history. The caricatures along the lines of "French Army rifle for sale -- dropped once, never fired" are painfully ignorant and conveniently forget how France nearly brought Europe to its collective knees in the Napoleonic Wars. The image of the surly, xenophobic Frenchman is likewise belied by the cosmopolitan French culture.

And the French see Germany as calling the tune now. For centuries, Germany was nothing but a collection of bickering principalities and petty princedoms, numbering in the the thousands, once all political units were counted. The was followed by a remarkable coalescing, followed in turn by trouncing France in two World Wars and becoming the economic leader to the rest of the EU. It's a little like your kid brother, who cheated on all his college MBA exams while partying like Cheech and Chong, coming home to tell you how to run the family business.

Greece, likewise, with the reappearance of radical nationalism, is showing what lies in the hearts of most Greeks. Even older and more fabled than France, ancient Greece still captures the minds and imaginations of modern people, as shown in the architectural and naming influence across the Deep South, for example. The Romans, as powerful as they were, still imported Greek tutors and felt they owed much of their culture to Greece. Even Obama and other politicians make speeches in front of Greek columns. The reality of Greece in centuries past, though, has been a waystop for first Slavic, then Ottoman, armies marching back and forth across the continent. Younger than America, the modern Greek state is heir to the richest and most prestigious cultural tradition in the world.

Now, take both of these countries. Some people in them may be wanting to retire a few years earlier, not have to pay as much out of their own pockets for benefits, but I think the real issue goes deeper -- people living in these nations are aware of their heritage and conflate compomising with economic reality to be compromising their national identity. So, instead of simply saying "Okay, we have to make do with less," it's becoming an international game of trying to keep up with the Jones and save face as much as possible. Whatever it takes, the lifestyle will not be compromised.

Unfortunately, there's not room for this kind of thinking any longer. There are no colonial empires to build an economy on. There are no lands occupied by poorly-organized barbarians who can be clobbered with a disciplined phalanx or two. Even in America, politicians routinely trot out the notion that there can be no compromise on the "American way of life." What route are we going to take in America when we finally see that there's a choice between austerity -- in other words, living within our means -- or just trying to live one more generation in the family mansion before retiring to a tarpaper shack by the river? Or have we already made that decision, committing to maintaining our own empire and domestic benefits, while racking up the largest debt the world has ever seen?

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I'm going to slightly change how I post on this blog.  The original intent for the Leibowitz Society was to discuss knowledge preservation and lifestyle changes as we enter a new Dark Age.  Unfortunately, it's also pressing to understand why we're taking the course we are, and the primary mission has suffered because of this, so I'm going to start posting twice a week, probably on Thursday or Friday, discussing something related to personal preparedness, building lasting communities, academic topics, and so on.  I'd welcome suggestions for what to cover, but will also see what comes out of comments on the blog. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Greek Diaspora

I ran across a very good article on Greeks who were emigrating from Greece because their economic lives had been shattered and they were unable to live reasonably any longer in their homeland. While I suppose this piece was intended to evoke some sympathy for Greeks in this position, it is also a good illustration of what life in the early stages of collapse is like.

The more I read about Collapse, and people's thoughts on it, the clearer it becomes that people are looking for a "trigger" event that lets them know they need to pack everything up into the Canyonaro and head out to the Doomsday shelter built on the site of a former missile silo. The stock market going to 500, the dollar going to zero, cities burning, no gas left in the pumps, alien saucers landing in Times Square, I don't know.

In reality, there's not going to be a giant gong or factory whistle that blows and lets us know that "it's on!" The reality is going to be going to work one day, finding that there's a mandatory meeting at 9am, where they announce that the place is closing down and people will be directed where to go to fill out unemployment paperwork. Or the reality is that you go to the store one day, find that your pension isn't buying as much food as it once did, as the price goes up. Or, you find some guys unhooking your backyard AC unit and getting ready to carry it off, calling the police, and finding out that budget cuts means that they'll be there in time to take a statement and not do much else.

In other words, Collapse is when the systems we've built over the years to sustain modern life have begun to break down, like a machine that no one can afford to maintain, even if they understood it anyway, and it's grinding, shaking, and belching lots of smoke that's the wrong color.

We all know it's coming, can see it from a mile off, but in a way, we're lost. If a tornado or flood was coming, things are so immediate, we know to grab the kids and the pets, head for the basement or higher ground. The immediacy of things makes us react. But, when we see the Euro taking on water, Greeks leaving for greener pastures, an insurmountable debt, rising oil prices, etc, we are lost.

The metaphor that seems best for our time is living in during the ice age. You can see the two-mile high glacier off in the distance, knowing that it's steadily approaching, that the ground you used to hunt in on is gone, but you can still hunt in front of it. Do you try to still eke out a living in the area, or move on to other lands? Likewise, in our modern lives, we ask the same kinds of questions. Do we still go out to dinner on Friday night, knowing that we should enjoy it while we can, or do we take that money and set it aside to buy hand tools and books on primitive medicine? Do we schedule a vacation for the summer, or decide that gas is too expensive and the money should be spent instead making conversions to the house for wood heat and starting backyard permaculture?

The irony here is that when people look back, they'll see this as a relatively fast blip on humanity's timeline. One hundred years of insane material excess, up to and including marrying off their dogs. Living like peasants that broke into the king's palace while he was away. And so on. They will wonder why we didn't see the signs just a few years earlier, and start shuttering the windows and battening the hatches when we could.

Monday, April 16, 2012


The re-release of Titanic, in 3D, along with the hundred year anniversary of the event, has been in the news lately, for better or worse, and it goes to show that we are still always up for letting a good tragedy capture the imagination, as long as we're not personally involved. I've been interested for some time in the ongoing obsession people have with disaster movies, from Armageddon to Melancholia, and how much of a role it plays in shaping the narrative of the human world. The disconnect between the disaster movie narrative on one hand, and the real risks of disasters is also interesting to explore. We like to go see a movie like Twister, but then are somehow surprised when Mother Nature drops an EF-4 on top of our house. We watch a movie like Outbreak, but then go open door handles just the same on a daily basis. Maybe at some point, we're experiencing a sort of impulse to engage in a mythological retelling of a future narrative, something that is so great, but yet becomes so remote, that we don't really comprehend it as being anything but a narrative.

In fairness, the non-event of the Swine Flu did prompt people to think a little about their precautions, but it also illustrated some points about disasters and disaster planning -- no matter how much we want to plan and prepare, there is a point where we cannot or will not alter our basic lifestyle in order to accomodate these possibilities. Is that a bad thing? Are we willing to risk dying from a virus just to enjoy a day at the ball park or shopping mall? And what would be the litmus test for most people, when they would no longer set foot out the front door?

More drastic disasters, such as the 2004 Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, etc, are all things which are beyond our ability to really accept in the scale of our lifetimes. Or, if we give a thought to them, we realize there's not a lot we can personally do about the situation. Worried about the ocean and want to move to higher ground? Yellowstone Park sits on top of a supervolcano that is supposed to blow every 600,000 or so years. In spite of hurricanes, more people than ever have moved to the coast, accepting the price that they pay is the risk of a twenty-five foot storm surge or a harried flight inland.

The other end of the spectrum is the planet-ending event, something as unlikely as a rogue planet dropping in to say "Hi!" Not a whole lot you can do about that sort of thing, except realize that if our industrial civilization still has the capacity to do so, we should probably ramp up our space exploration and colonization efforts before something like that would ever happen (see the essay in Foreign Affairs).

What we miss in all of this is that our sense of vulnerability has become so personal and decided on an individual basis. Risk evaluation becomes something of an arbitrary thing on a personal life, an abstract one on a national level. A person who is tasked, for example, with planning how to handle an outbreak of a deadly virus is going to clinically examine available resources for dealing with the epidemic, as well as mechanisms of social control, infrastructure, supply, and so on. Do they also factor in the notion that people do not behave like a machine, but an unpredictable swarm of locusts? An accident on the other side of a highway causes both sides to clog up. Or traffic jams may occur for no apparent reason of all. What happens to someone's planning when people tasked with controlling the perimeter of an outbreak fall prey to the same fears and doubts that we all suffer from?

Or, with another example, say that an asteroid large enough to wipe out a city, or perhaps a state, is predicted to impact the earth? There is no certain way of knowing where it's going to hit. How long do we expect people to play hymns or pop songs on the deck of the Titanic? Do we seriously expect there to be much in the way of social fabric being preserved at that point? We think of long-term events, with time to adjust, like Peak Oil or other resource depletion, but seldom think of things like plagues or devastating wars simply because the ball can bounce in lots of unpredictable ways.

In the end, there's really not a lot we can do or expect to do about some of these things, on a macro-level. On a micro-level, there's plenty. Be able to be responsible for yourself and your family, have a game plan in mind whatever you're doing, be it setting foot on a trans-Atlantic liner, or just getting in your car for the morning commute. Put enough aside, like our paleolithic ancestors did, to take care of yourself if the grocery isn't there the next day. Relearn the basic skills that people took for granted even as little as a hundred years ago, when life didn't come in a shrink-wrap package, then pass these skills on to people around you. Last, as always, remember to put aside some pieces of our collective knowledge so that we have a reason to dig out and clean up if The Big One ever indeed does hit.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Peak Wealth

The suicide of a Greek pensioner who claimed he could not afford to live with new austerity measures has sparked a new round of protests in Greece. People are essentially questioning why they are being forced to suffer for a crisis that isn't their own making. Depending on your own view of things, you might sympathize with this viewpoint, or you might point out that people have fed at the trough long enough to be part of the problem, whether or not they meant to be. However, as usual in the modern narrative, the issue is that the underlying problem is not really being explored.

Enough has been written about Peak Oil over the years to where discussing it in the absence of any new revelation on the topic is probably a waste of time, but I think there is a corollary to it which really hasn't been discussed much yet, something that would probably accurately be called "Peak Wealth." By this, I mean the tipping point where the actual economic worth and soundness of the average individual and the overall begins to decline, where our options become increasingly limited, shifting from a luxury-seeking preference to a subsistence-seeking one.

If we use an analogy of Peak Oil to examine Peak Wealth, consider it in these terms. As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, it began an evolving process of using trade (and sometimes conquest) to build wealth. This wealth began to be accumulated in a banking system (initiated by the Knights Templar, perfected by the Medicis) which was used to power economic and technological expansion for centuries to come. Then, came the rise of modern consumerism. Just like sheep being turned loose on verdant Achaean hillsides, spendthrift politicians and credit-addicted consumers have sheared the accumulated wealth of civilization lean over the past couple of centuries, leaving us with little in the way of actual resources.

This is maybe a harder thing to define in real terms than it is to capture as an concept. Per capita income, which is sometimes kicked around, is a misleading figure. If wages are adjusted for inflation, we'll see incomes raise, even though the prices of commodities may rise even faster than what people can afford with their new-found "wealth."  Purchasing power calculators may offer more of an accurate glimpse, but this may require matching price to commodity. Things like consumer confidence and unemployment are even more misleading, both figures being so politically volatile that they are more "cooked" than a Fukushima hot dog.

I plan to do a little digging and follow up this blog post with something which has some meaningful number crunching, but consider a few things here. Real wages have not risen in America since 1970, yet the pressure put on commodities has increased by an expanding population. Some commodities (such as oil) have been available only because of a technological race between depletion and the science used to extract or process them. People have to work two or three jobs to cover just basic household expanses. The labor pool has increased, but the value of labor has dropped because there is no corresponding increase in actual wealth.

On a national level, it means we can't fix the roads or bridges, or figure out how to come up with a real, workable solution to resources depletion, or balance the budget, and so on. On a personal level, it means we have to do much more with much less, and can no longer really look to other parties to even minimally ensure our economic futures. Greece is the tip of the iceberg, but the rest of the world is going to eventually follow. What is also telling here is that this wealth was carefully built through the exploitation of natural resources, trade, scientific innovation, conquest, etc. These things are no longer possible now, especially since we have decided as a species to remain on earth and to choose luxury over progress. Our heroes are sports stars and singers, not scientists or inventors.

The question then comes to mind of what this actually means with regard to the possibility of collapse? The answer simply is that this is the collapse itself, when we're no longer able to realistically maintain the economic systems we've built. Just like depletion of oil resources would mean an end to the labor multiplier that every person has enjoyed for the last few generations, the depletion of wealth resources, and the inability to rebuild them, will mean an end to the independent economic existence that most people have enjoyed for the past few centuries.