Archive for November, 2008

Production Vs. Distribution and Food Security

Sharon November 30th, 2008

There’s no escaping the Depression. I’ve been saying throughought my long life that money and love take on their various significances when they’re totally absent.  Same is true of food.  Food becomes most important when there isn’t any.” - Stetson Kennedy, WPA writers project  

 Check out Aaron Newton’s latest post - I think it provides a great introduction to issues of food security.

These are going to be the central issues of our time - both producing enough food where it is most needed, and also equitable distribution.

For those who are new to my blog, Aaron and I are co-authors of the forthcoming (soon - March!) _A Nation of Farmers_, which explores what the US is going to have to do to prevent a massive food crisis.  This is our grand passion, the product of the second most productive collaboration of my lifetime (the first one is with Eric, obviously).  In the end, all my work, all Aaron’s work comes down to this - we want people to be able to eat sufficiently, sustainably, well - and for our children and our children’s children and onward to have this as a basic right. 


Why I'm Not Worried About Inflation…At Least for a Good While Yet

Sharon November 30th, 2008

Well, I wish I could take the credit for having constructed a brilliant analysis, but really, the best answer I can give is “What she said.”  That is, Ilargi and Stoneleigh have been running analysis of the credit crisis since before most people knew there was a crisis.  I frankly thought Ilargi was out of his mind when he told me that the economic crisis would reshape peak oil and climate change discourse, and ought to be our focus.  I was wrong, he was right.  Their analysis has been solidly spot-on, and I think it will continue to be.  We are in a self-reinforcing deflationary spiral.  Inflation may eventually be a response to that, but for right now and the immediate future, well, it isn’t.  Here’s an excerpt from Stoneleigh’s remarkable analysis.

“Thanks to a credit boom that dates back to at least the early 1980s, and which accelerated rapidly after the millennium, the vast majority of the effective money supply is credit. A credit boom can mimic currency inflation in important ways, as credit acts as a money equivalent during the expansion phase. There are, however, important differences. Whereas currency inflation divides the real wealth pie into smaller and smaller pieces, devaluing each one in a form of forced loss sharing, credit expansion creates multiple and mutually exclusive claims to the same pieces of pie. This generates the appearance of a substantial increase in real wealth through leverage, but is an illusion. The apparent wealth is virtual, and once expansion morphs into contraction, the excess claims are rapidly extinguished in a chaotic real wealth grab. It is this prospect that we are currently facing today, as credit destruction is already well underway, and the destruction of credit is hugely deflationary. As money is the lubricant in the economic engine, a shortage will cause that engine to seize up, as happened in the 1930s. An important point to remember is that demand is not what people want, it is what they are ready, willing and able to pay for. The fall in aggregate demand that characterizes a depression reflects a lack of purchasing power, not a lack of want. With very little money and no access to credit, people can starve amid plenty.

Attempts by governments and central bankers to reinflate the money supply are doomed to fail as debt monetization cannot keep pace with credit destruction, and liquidity injected into the system is being hoarded by nervous banks rather than being used to initiate new lending, as was the stated intent of the various bailout schemes. Bailouts only ever benefit a few insiders. Available credit is already being squeezed across the board, although we are still far closer to the beginning of the contraction than the end of it. Further attempts at reinflation may eventually cause a crisis of confidence among international lenders, which could lead to a serious dislocation in the treasury bond market at some point.”

I think it is important that we be prepared for the real crisis - a long term, deep, deflationary Depression.  As I’ve mentioned before, most rhetoric about the Depression tends to look at the deepest part of the Depression, observe that we aren’t there yet (something along the lines of “During the Depression, unemployment was 25%, but at present we are nearly at 7%, a long way away from that).  All of this ignores the fact that during the Depression, unemployment rose gradually too.  In the fall of 1929, unemployment rose only very slowly.  But between March 1930 and March 1931, unemployment doubled, and didn’t reach its peak until 1933, more than 3 1/2 years after the crash.

My claim is not that we will travel precisely the same road as described in the Depression. But one of the things about crises worth noting is this.  They have their moments of screaming and running around, of explosions and flames.  And then they have most of the rest of the time, which is rather like life, only with incrementally painful shifts. 

One of the incrementally painful shifts we are facing is that addressing peak oil and climate change are likely to be pushed to the back burner.  Obama has already noted that some of his energy goals will probably have to be put off.  The problem is that the odds are good that if they are put off, they won’t happen.  Meanwhile, over at The Oil Drum, Gail the Actuary has another clear-eyed post about how this will affect our long term energy infrastructure. 

BTW, if you’ve relied as much as I have on their analysis, and can afford it, you might consider donating to the Automatic Earth’s Holiday Fundraiser, on the sidebar.  Ilargi has been doing the work of researching and writing full time, and essentially, they are trying to make sure he can keep doing it.  His goal - to make as much as a McDonalds burger flipper by exploring the financial crisis and helping people address it - seems pretty reasonable to me - I’d sure as heck rather have the two of them doing this work. 


Deep, Dark Black

Sharon November 29th, 2008

I don’t have a lot of patience with consumer culture today.  Maybe it is that we still haven’t heard the news from Eric’s College roommate and his family, living in Mumbai, and we’re getting worried.  Maybe because I don’t necessarily want to be a member of the same species of people who trample folks to death to get first shot at the discount tvs.  Maybe I’ve just eaten too much and know how much wood I’m going to have to split to work off the cranberry bread.  I don’t know.  All I know is this - Black Friday will turn out to have been black indeed.  No matter how good the deals in your local mall, they’ll be better in February when all the going out of business signs are hanging out.  And then there won’t be nearly as much junk to spend on - which will be good, because most of us won’t have nearly enough money.

 Most of the most desirable black friday items were electronics, high tech gadgets designed to make your tv picture bigger, let you get your internet messages in the airport toilet, let you pretend to ski without actually getting any real exercise or allow you to make calls from right next to someone’s ear.  That is, all the stuff that has led to a world of people who don’t really know what to do with each other.  We spent Thursday reconnecting with family, and on Friday, we went to express our love by making sure we don’t have to do that again until next year.

I didn’t buy nothing yesterday, I admit.  It was too good a chance to take my kids to the science museum in Boston while I’m here.  So I bought tickets, half of lunch with friends at a thai-buddhist vegetarian restaurant, and while I was in the neighborhood, picked up a songbook for a friend, Goodnight Moon in Hebrew for another friend, and some sheets of beeswax for a homeschool project making Chanukah candles.  And I’m not claiming any level of moral purity as I sit here on my laptop.

But it isn’t just that it has to stop - and it does - did you see that we now have 73% fewer zooplankton than we did in 1960?  Nearly every sea animal or sea animal eating creature in the world is heavily dependent on zooplankton.  That’s why even if we could find a magic bullet to go on the way we could, it would just put off the inevitable reckoning.  But it isn’t just that it needs to stop - it is that it is stopping. 

The economy is a game of music chairs, and the chairs are disappearing.  When the music stops for each of us, and our chair is gone, for a time we will rely primarily on the resources we’ve built up now.  Those of us left holding the big screen tvs and the designer handbags will have them - or whatever their resale value is.  And those who have ties - biological or chosen - will have those.  The truth is that our consumer culture needs us to be isolated, fragmented, alone, empty - or advertising wouldn’t work, the nonsensical reasoning that we have to have this year’s big thing wouldn’t work.  The primary project of consumer culture is to drive us apart, to make sure we do not share, we do not combine resources, or even consult on how ridiculous the things we are being told are.  And it has worked magnificently.

The music is hectic, the chairs are disappearing, we’re going faster and faster.  And pretty soon it stops.  What will you have when it just…STOPS?


Grace Before Meals…and After

Sharon November 26th, 2008

Most Americans will soon be sitting down to one of the most formal meals they’ll enjoy this year, and many of them will say a grace or blessing before their meal.  And as no other time of year, we are forced to ask - to whom are we grateful?

The answer, of course, depends on the meal we are serving.  For some of us, the links that tie our grace to our food are fairly clear.  I’m visiting family in Coastal Massachusetts whose ties to the turkey are quite direct - it was raised at my farm, by me, Eric and the kids.  Its feed was grown 20 miles from me, on a farm that has raised grain quite literally since the American revolution.  Onions and squash came from my mother and step-mother’s community garden, cranberries from Cape Cod, potatoes from a farm in nearby Maine.  

Other items came from the supermarket or other sites in the industrial food system, and have more complex chains of gratitude - we can thank the trucker who hauled the sweet potatoes from North Carolina alongside with the farmer that grew them and the migrant laborers who harvested them; the manufacturer who built the equipment that transforms corn into its constituent parts and thus produced the corn syrup that flavors the ginger ale (lest you think that ours is a super-pure crunchy thanksgiving) in the kids’ Shirley Temples (its a Grandmother thing), the farmer who grew the corn on this, his third straight year of corn on that soil, the genetic engineer who bred the corn and inserted the genes into it and the congressman who voted to subsidize corn.  But should we?  Certainly, their labor is inscribed in our food, and they are owed something.  But was it worthy of grace?

The problem with saying grace is that it can get you into tricky places.  For those who believe that God is involved in all of this, it gets trickier still.  Faiths may have theological differences, some quite major, but most of us agree that there’s a partnership of sorts with God involved.  That is, we thank the farmer who grows the food, and we thank forth God who brings forth bread from the earth.  We thank the vintner who made the wine, and God who sent the rains.  At the end of the day, most theists will be thanking God for the food - and thus, implicating God in the food.

But it isn’t always clear that we should be grateful for the food we have - sure, we should recognize that we are fortunate to have full bellies in a world of hunger.  But is there no more than that?  Do we have the right to a world in which we are truly grateful for our food, because it comes from sources that enrich us, and serve our interests?  If we believe that God is a participant in our works, does it matter whether those works are good ones?  Do the things that enchain us to the sources of our food create reciprocal obligations in us?  Might we not have an obligation to make sure that everyone who deserves gratitude is thanked, and thus, that we understand our food’s origin in a new and deeper way?

That’s no easy proposition, and I don’t claim that simple solutions are readily available.  But if our grace is to be something other than simple rote, something that might call down genuine Grace upon us, or give us a sense of a life filled with grace, we are going to have to find a way, not just to spend a few moments being thankful, but to create something worthy of appreciation.

 Happy Thanksgiving, to them that are celebrating.


George Monbiot is Arguing with Me…That Has to be Good

Sharon November 25th, 2008

The words “holy crap” were pretty much the first ones to my lips this morning, when several people sent me George Monbiot’s latest column

He writes:

The costs of a total energy replacement and conservation plan would be astronomical, the speed improbable. But the governments of the rich nations have already deployed a scheme like this for another purpose. A survey by the broadcasting network CNBC suggests that the US federal government has now spent $4.2 trillion in response to the financial crisis, more than the total spending on the second world war when adjusted for inflation. Do we want to be remembered as the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse?

This approach is challenged by the American thinker Sharon Astyk. In an interesting new essay, she points out that replacing the world’s energy infrastructure involves “an enormous front-load of fossil fuels”, which are required to manufacture wind turbines, electric cars, new grid connections, insulation and all the rest. This could push us past the climate tipping point. Instead, she proposes, we must ask people “to make short term, radical sacrifices”, cutting our energy consumption by 50%, with little technological assistance, in five years.

There are two problems: the first is that all previous attempts show that relying on voluntary abstinence does not work. The second is that a 10% annual cut in energy consumption while the infrastructure remains mostly unchanged means a 10% annual cut in total consumption: a deeper depression than the modern world has ever experienced. No political system - even an absolute monarchy - could survive an economic collapse on this scale.

She is right about the risks of a technological green new deal, but these are risks we have to take. Astyk’s proposals travel far into the realm of wishful thinking. Even the technological new deal I favour inhabits the distant margins of possibility.

Can we do it? Search me. Reviewing the new evidence, I have to admit that we might have left it too late. But there is another question I can answer more easily. Can we afford not to try? No, we can’t.

After being so flattered I could die, I suffered the irresistable desire to argue back, and I’m going to.  But I don’t want to understate how pleased I am to encounter Monbiot’s critique.  After all, we named “The Riot for Austerity” for him, from a passage in his remarkable _Heat_.  I’m particularly grateful that he takes seriously the real question of what the climate impact a massive build out might actually be - this is a drum I keep beating, not because I wish to undermine efforts to expand renewable energy, but because I think living in a 5 degree warmer world with wind turbines will be small, sad consolation.

I’m also grateful that Monbiot’s analysis begins from the hard truths.  The drum I keep beating is that we cannot simply rely on IPCC analysis, which was already outdated when it was released, and which understates the truth.  The sum of the data that has come in over the last two years suggests that whatever we do, we must do it quite rapidly.  This is not a problem that can be put off for our kids, to the next administration, or even until we are done with the economic crisis.  On this, Monbiot and I have absolutely no disagreements.  He has done more than anyone in the world to raise awareness not only of climate change, but of its immediacy. 

So let us start with our agreements - and one of the places we agree is that voluntary self-sacrifice is a hard nut to crack, and that a renewable build out is a lot more palatable to people.  I agree that this is true.  But like Monbiot, I believe there is a real and serious possibility that a renewable build out on the scale needed to keep things fundamentally the same may well fail.  Monbiot uses the example of the sheer amount of funding marshalled for the bail out as proof of what societies can do in a short time.  But there are two problems with that example.  The first is that the very fact that we did marshall huge sums make it not more likely we can do it again, but much less likely.  That is, finding the money for a build out just got radically less feasible as our government gave future wind turbines and insulation to bankers who jumped up and down on it and set it aflame.

The other danger is that the example of the bail out might be a little too accurate - despite pouring massive quantities of funds into finance, the combined efforts of many nations have manifestly failed, and at a huge price - not just a lot of money wasted, but a deep destruction of our future capacity to adapt to climate change.  My deepest fear about climate change is not that we won’t begin to address it, but that we will falter in the middle of our massive industrial projects, having emitted the carbon, invested ourselves in one strategy, and have little or nothing left to begin any other shifts.

Finding money isn’t exactly easy, but it is achievable, once a crisis comes to enough of a head.  But from the access of money to the fulfillment of any given project are millions of small steps, and many years.  There is the very real danger that even if we could come up with the initial funds to begin a massive renewable build out, we might well falter somewhere in the middle, as cost overruns and delays, combined with the real manifestations of peak oil and climate change altered our trajectory and dashed our hopes of success.  The truth is that up to a point, nations can borrow and print money - but only to a point.  Ask Iceland “started any major new infrastructure projects lately?”  Dmitry Orlov, author of _Reinventing Collapse_ observes that such projects inevitable grind to a halt during severe crises - and unfortunately, the only point of crisis we’re facing is not a climate driven collapse. 

Now Monbiot speaks of “voluntary abstinence” not working - and I agree that this is mostly true, if one construes the term to mean “people acting in isolation to try and cut their emissions without measure and without support or enforcement.”  Fortunately, we both agree this would be silly.  That said, however, organized, collective, often government supported self-sacrifice *from necessity* and *to protect one’s future from a vast disaster* has worked, and Monbiot and I can both think of some obvious examples.  During World War II, the British endured far tighter rationing than the US - but in the US, rationing was overwhelmingly popular and accepted despite the fact that there was no actual shortage of many of the rationed goods.  And, while it is true that pure voluntary self-restraint often doesn’t work, what voluntary models do successfully do is engage the populace, make rationing acceptable, and provide structures for enforced rationing.  So, for example, the voluntary food rationing in the US of WWI, which had mixed success, was adopted as part of the model and structure for enforced food rationing.  The Victory Garden movement of WWI, largely popularly driven, was adopted as part of the plan for addressing possible (and in Britain real) food shortages.  In both the US and Britain, Victory Gardens eventually provided more than 40% of all produce. 

 An even better example is this - when faced with a national crisis, young men and some women from many nations, including the US and the UK, chose voluntarily to go to war.  Yes, we instituted a draft, but in both World Wars, in both the US and the UK, the military enrolled literally tens of thousands of volunteers, people volunteering not to give up hot showers, but life itself.    They still do it today.  I find Monbiot’s claim that we cannot convince people to cut energy usage unlikely - we’ll die for a patriotic ideal, but we won’t carpool?  I admit, I find the idea that we won’t sacrifice somewhat mystifying - the world is full of people who defer all sorts of gratification for a greater cause - they give money to charity even when they are short themselves, they make voluntary choices to deny themselves gratification for reasons of religion or cultural preference, they serve their nation whether in the military or at protest, trying to improve it.  They die doing this.  They go to jail doing this.  The idea that we are soft cowards who will not sacrifice maligns us, and I think it is fundamentally wrong.  I do not claim that Monbiot believes this, but I think that underlying the notion that sacrifice doesn’t work is this deep doubt about the kind of people we are at heart.  I don’t really blame anyone who has that doubt - after all, we have been called upon over the last decades, not to sacrifice, but to ever greater self-indulgence, but what I do not believe is that the self-indulgence has driven out the capacity for sacrifice -instead, they are sides of the same coin.  We indulged because our collective definition of goodness was defined by consumer culture.  But the vast void and emptiness of this has left people literally longing for something richer and deeper.  Service to community, nation and family is likely to be bread and meat to many who have been starving for something other than the empty calories consumer culture has served them. 

It is true that the impulse that led to the military recruiters may not have lasted long, or been unregretted, and I doubt the impulses that move people collectively towards self-sacrifice to preserve the planet will be unregretted, or sustained every second.  That’s why we urgently need reinforcements - people teaching others how to live with less, and national movements and structures to enable, enforce and remind.  With those reinforcements, I can think of dozens of examples of nations in crisis who have convinced their people to make sacrifices, to ensure a decent future for their posterity.  We can simultaneously encourage others to use their best impulses, and then create structures that enable them to resist the temptation to slack, to compromise.  Voluntary abstinence can never exist in a vacuum - that is, the will helps us choose a course, and enough other people making that course seem feasible makes it appealing and accessible.  Then, we create models that make it harder, more costly, or bring about social disapproval when one is tempted to take the easy road. But the volunteer element is just as important as the formal elements of constraint - that is, the sense that people are choosing to work together towards a difficult goal makes possible formal moves to enforce participation.  People will put up with being required to do what everyone is doing anyway. 

Monbiot’s other claim is that the reason a radical shift such as an emissions cut of 50% in five years ”with minimal infrastructure change” would be impossible,  in that it would plunge us into an economic crisis that would destroy our economy and lead to the overthrow of governments.  It is possible that he’s right. Now in the essay Monbiot refers to, I advocate investment in infrastructure - in health care, agricultural, educational and some renewable infrastructure (at a pace that doesn’t push the climate over the edge), which would offset some of that decline, say, half.  But Monbiot is also right that even 5% decline year over year would represent a massive crisis, and a threat to the stability of governments and economies.  Again, we agree.  In fact, there is a very real chance that whether or not we address climate change, we’re about to see what 5% decline in consumption year over year looks like - because the reality of our economic crisis is that it has come before the most acute stages of the climate crisis, and whatever we do must be done within those parameters.  If we cannot address climate change while managing a massive economic decline, there is a good chance that we cannot manage it at all.

And this, I think is where Monbiot and I finally do disagree, but where that disagreement is most fruitful and interesting.  Because Monbiot’s assumption is that his solution - a green build out, might have a chance of success - that is, we may be too late, and there’s a real chance that the chance of success is actually 0, but there’s a possibility that his model could save us.  As I pointed out, there’s also a chance that attempting it could actually speed up climate change - that doing a massive build out on top of all of our other emissions might actually push us over the edge faster, and Monbiot admits this, but says we have to chance it.

But let us imagine that we could know that it really is too late to achieve a massive build out - that the only possible solution is to tank the economy, cut emissions radically and pay the price, or to accept a world with a tanked economy (climate change will certainly take care of that) that may not be fully liveable for our kids and grandkids.  In that case, Monbiot presumably would be an advocate of my plan, which also might not work, but which has a non-zero chance of success, because it requires fewer resources and more rapidly addresses climate issues - if we could make massive cuts, close to what is needed, while gradually bootstrapping renewables with the promise that if we are willing to endure difficult times, we will have more for our kids.

Monbiot’s solution works only if it isn’t too late.  My solution actually works regardless of whether it is too late for a build-out, but is a harder sell.  And so we confront the question of odds.  Does a higher chance on a game that may already be rigged or a lower chance on a game that probably isn’t come out better?  Let us imagine that Monbiot’s scenario has a 20% chance of success if it isn’t already too late to invest in a build out,  0% chance of success if it is too late for a build out, but not too late to stabilize the climate at all with rapid cuts, and 0% chance if we’re already past the tipping points.  Let us further imagine that my scenario has a 10% chance of succes if we still have time for a build out, a 10% chance of success if we don’t have time for a build out and a 0% chance if we are past the tipping points.  Let us also assume that we will not know which category we fall into until it is too late, and we’ve taken our shot.

Monbiot concludes that we have to try.  And again, we agree - we have to try something.  And we have to choose with imperfect knowledge, and deep uncertainty.  I can see the appeal of his solution - indeed, I would almost certainly prefer it myself, were it likely to succeed. But I would argue the very likelihood that the outcome has already been decided makes my own solution a better deal, with better odds.  Not good ones - but better.  2 times out of 3, Monbiot’s analysis leads us to no hope at all.  2 times out of 3, mine gets us faint hope.  My own contention is that faint, feathery hopes always win - the possibility that we might be striving earnestly, only to fail, to have failed before we start, is not a danger we can eliminate, but it must be minimized. 

Frankly, I’d love to have a better set of choices, and in this, again, I suspect Monbiot and I deeply agree. And I’m grateful to him for making clear the dangers - much of the rhetoric of climate change has been studded with a cheery, Bob the Builder style “Can We Fix It?  Yes we can!”  narrative that doesn’t ask hard questions.  No, we can’t afford to give up the game, to throw up our hands in despair.  But we can’t make good choices without understanding just how close we are to disaster, and where the odds are highest.


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