Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Message from a starship

Today, we present another interlude of romantic diversion in between tidings of the apocalypse.

 V'Ger! The launch of Voyager 1

NASA's Voyager 1 probe is approaching the edge of interstellar space. In particular, NASA believes the spacecraft, launched in the Age of Disco on September 5, 1977, is almost past the immense sphere of our sun's solar wind. The sun constantly emits an outward-rushing stream of electrically charged particles, which scientists have dubbed "the solar wind."

Certain readings now being transmitted from Voyager 1 indicate the craft is nearing the point where the solar wind stops. See the press release from NASA for the nitty-gritty details. NASA is trying to refine its calculations of when the probe will actually depart from the solar wind's boundary. As of today, scientists expect that to happen in about four years. When it does, the radio telemetry from Voyager will provide confirmation. Assuming, of course, that the radio equipment is still working by then.

If it is, then Earth-based listeners will receive the first human radio signals ever transmitted from truly interstellar space, beyond the sun's farthest reach. In its own way, it will be an achievement equally as impressive as the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.

It will be another entry in the annals of spiritually significant human achievements from the era of fossil fuels. The industrial development made possible by those fuels enabled us to see our planet from outside, and send explorers, both human and machine, to other bodies across the ocean of space.

Those same fuels will, inevitably, bring an end to the current industrial age, together with all the economic and social institutions that it made possible. Whatever rises in the future to replace this way of life will have to find better ways of living within ecological limits, on drastically reduced supplies of energy. But those future societies will be able to do so with pictures and memories from the edge of forever. For whatever that may be worth. A lot, I would say. The experience of eternity is one of the things that redeems mortal human existence.

One of my regular readers expects that our distant descendants of the new ecological age will have a sufficient resource base and technological infrastructure to resume human exploration of the stars. I hope he is right, for many reasons. Not the least of which is the necessity of finding a new home for the human race before some cosmic catastrophe wipes out the Earth.

But also, I invoke a principle once cited by a friend of mine, when he was arguing in favor of spending money to send human beings to Mars. Asked for a good reason to do it, my friend mentioned other, minor reasons, before getting to the most crucial principle. He spoke of technological spin offs, the need for interplanetary colonization to ensure human survival, the superiority of human explorers over machines in searching for extraterrestrial life, the availability of affordable technology for the trip, and so on.

But his main reason? Because it's cool, he said. Adding, helpfully: so fuck off.

May the enterprise continue.

* * * * *

Postscript: Pioneer 10 is further out into space than Voyager 1, I think, but I don't think it transmitted any signals from beyond the solar wind. Need to check that.

And a star to steer her by: Voyager 1 in flight

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Day 2: There must not be blood. An American city confronts peak oil, July 2015

Duke City
Saturday, July 4, 2015
9:15 p.m. MDT

Compiled from staff and volunteer reports.

1: Downtown Albuquerque, July 4, 2015

22 people are known dead and at least 200 believed wounded in Albuquerque in the last 24 hours, as protesters engage in running street battles with Albuquerque police and elements of the New Mexico National Guard.Casualty estimates come from sources at Albuquerque area hospitals.

All of the dead and injured reported so far are civilians. State government sources have not released casualty figures among police and National Guard forces. Eyewitnesses claim multiple instances of police or Guard personnel being hit by gunfire from street protesters.

Sympathy street demonstrations have broken out in Santa Fe and Las Cruces, although so far the demonstrations there have been peaceful.

New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez has declared a state of emergency in Albuquerque, effectively placing the city under martial law. By the governor's order, a 24 hour curfew went into effect in Albuquerque at 4:00 p.m. today. Persons other than police, military, or emergency services personnel found to be present outdoors will be fired upon. The Speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives, Democrat Raymond Lujan of Grants, has vowed to challenge the governor's emergency declaration in court.

Governor Martinez refused to comment on reports that she has asked U.S. President Mitch Daniels to deploy regular army troops to the state. Pentagon sources have suggested in recent months that ongoing combat operations in Mexico, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Venezuela would leave little manpower for suppressing domestic disturbances in the continental United States.

The violence in Albuquerque began yesterday, with a clash between protesters and police at a local supermarket that left five demonstrators dead. The protest was called by community leaders in response to the mounting food crisis in the city.

Street battles in the ensuing 24 hours suggest more than anger toward the police. Signs and slogans among protesters have denounced food shortages and high prices, also accusing local supermarket chains of cronyism in food distribution.

More than a dozen supermarkets were reportedly damaged in today's fighting. The South Valley Albertsen's store where the street battles began yesterday has burned to the ground. Fire department personnel trying to respond at the scene were met with automatic weapons fire from surrounding buildings.  

Gunfire from police during the day's violence was repeatedly met in kind by local residents. Protesters used automatic weapons, Molotov cocktails, and rocks to inflict a so-far unknown number of casualties on police and National Guard forces throughout the city.

 2: New West National Bank, near Coors and Central

One report claimed that an improvised explosive device (IED) destroyed a police patrol car in the South Valley, but the report remains unverified.

A source with an Albuquerque activist organization, speaking only under a guarantee of anonymity, claimed that the violence could soon escalate dramatically. According to this source, meetings of key community members at secret locations spent the day debating a coordinated response to the violence. The meetings apparently failed to reach a consensus.

However, one group favored escalating the so far piecemeal armed attacks on police and Guard units into an all-out armed insurgency. Members of this group include several veterans of the U.S. military, with combat experience in wars spanning the last fourteen years.

One veteran is said to favor massively destructive guerrilla style attacks. These attacks would use car bombs and other techniques faced by American forces in the ongoing global U.S. war to suppress Islamic insurgents and other "assymetric" opposition.

Other activists have reportedly gone so far as proposing an alliance with the city's gangs and drug cartels. 

A larger group, according to the source in Albuquerque's increasingly underground activist community, favors a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Under their proposal, the Archbishop of Santa Fe and other religious leaders would mediate an end to the confrontation. Albuquerque residents would pledge to abandon violence, while state and city authorities would accept formal, face-to-face talks with community leaders to address the ongoing food shortage and economic crisis.

 3: Central Avenue, downtown

The source who described this proposal emphasized the growing desperation of many ordinary citizens. "We've got unemployment over twenty percent. A lot of people are running out of food, and they've got sick family members who can't get care because they got no insurance. And the government is cutting people off from all kinds of help. Medicaid, unemployment, welfare. They're closing the schools. They say there's no water rationing but the utility is cutting people off anyway. And it's a hundred fucking degrees every day. Everybody's tired of it. Something's got to give. When people are desperate they can do anything."

The source who made these remarks self-identifies as a supporter of the peace proposal being discussed by activists. The source agreed to speak about the proposal, and the more violent responses under consideration, in order to head off a worsening of the current situation.

"But the government's got to give, too," the source emphasized. "They can't keep doing this shit to people. They've got to talk to us, about ways to start helping people. Organizing neighborhoods to start living a different kind of life. Because the old days, they aren't coming back. Wal-mart and partying on payday and going to the mall. That's done. The government's got to start helping people deal with that."

The source wouldn't offer a precise prediction of what will happen next. Nor would the source speculate on how the debate in Albuquerque's underground will go. The activist only repeated the need for action amidst growing economic collapse. "If this keeps up," said the activist, "things are going to get bad. We won't be a community no more. We'll be the resistance."

* * * * *

Public domain images from Wikimedia Commons:




UK company says the Second Age of Sail begins in 2012

British wind power company B9 Energy plans to begin manufacturing the first sail-driven cargo vessels of the energy descent era in the year the Mayan calendar turns -- 2012, the 14th b'ak'tun, marking 5,523 years since the creation of the world.

The new commercial sailing ships will be 60% wind driven, aided by an engine run on bio-fuels or liquid natural gas. So, it's not one hundred percent sail, but it's a start. The ships will carry 9,000 tons of cargo, which is about five times more than the biggest merchant vessels plying the oceans in the era of the Yankee clipper. You can read about the new ships here and here.

They will look like this:

B9 Energy's clipper ship

Not terribly elegant by the standards of the tall ships in the days of old. But it's a start. Dreams and plans are afoot for many more such vessels. Low Tech Magazine has one article describing them, as does Peak Oil blogger Dmitri Orlov.

With oil production peaking and the other fossil fuels certain to eventually follow, the return of sailing fleets in some form seems inevitable to me. Human societies five hundred years from now will trade across the ocean with ships driven by wind, by solar steam power, by biofuels, and all of the above at the same time, I'm sure. With the shift in the Earth's climate, the home ports for many of the great ships of the future will lie on the shores of northern Canada, Siberia, and Antarctica.White wilderness turned green, with cities and harbors and stories.

Just thinking about it gives me hope, for some dumb reason. Probably because I'm a shameless, hopeless goddamn romantic when it comes to sailing ships. As a kid, one of the first books I ever read was about John Paul Jones standing on the ruined deck of U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, refusing to surrender to HMS Serapis. I used to read about American kids in the first few decades of the old Republic, running off to the docks of Boston or New York to join up with a merchant ship or the indomitable frigates of the American navy. I somehow missed the parts about "rum, sodomy, and the lash." Or told myself that only the British Navy was like that. Uh huh.

 U.S.S. Constitution in Boston harbor, October 2010

Whatever the realities, I grew up dreaming of a romantic life aboard ships like Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constitution, launched on October 21, 1797. She fought the French, the Barbary Pirates of North Africa, and the British, never lost a battle, and was never decommissioned, either. Constitution remains in active service today, 213 years later. 

With any luck, this humble relic of the first Age of Sail will be around for the second. There may not be a United States five hundred years from now, but I hope Constitution is still afloat. 700 years after first touching the water. Maybe the descendants of today's Americans will sail her across the Arctic to countries yet to be born. I hope it's a goodwill tour.

There are days when the future doesn't seem so bad.

* * * * *

Sea Fever

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

                                          John Masefield, 1916

Friday, December 10, 2010

They say Albuquerque is dying: an American city confronts peak oil, July 2015

Duke City 
Friday, July 3, 2015
11:55 p.m. MDT

Albuquerque police opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators outside a supermarket early this evening, killing five people and wounding at least 11 others, according to police and hospital sources.

Incidents of rioting, vandalism, and arson have erupted throughout the city following the shootings at the supermarket. At least two police officers are known dead in the city-wide violence and four others wounded, according to a police spokesman. The number of dead and injured among civilians in the hours after the supermarket clash remains unknown, but numerous eyewitness reports say police have used deadly force repeatedly throughout the evening.

Today's outbreak of mass violence was believed to be the worst civil disorder in the state since New Mexico was occupied by U.S. military forces during the Mexican War of 1846-48.

Numerous, extensive fires have been reported throughout the Albuquerque metro area, affecting commercial and residential buildings as well as vehicles. The glow from the fires was visible as far away as Los Alamos, fifty miles to the north. 

1: Downtown Albuquerque, July 3, 2015

At 10:00 p.m. this evening, Albuquerque Mayor Darren White issued a directive establishing a near-total dusk-to-dawn curfew throughout the city, effective immediately. In a written statement, the mayor officially authorized police to use deadly force at their discretion to enforce the curfew. Police and emergency services personnel are exempted from the curfew. The mayor's office and police have ordered all other city residents to stay in their homes or businesses for the duration of the curfew.

The mayor has reportedly asked New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez for National Guard assistance. Information to that effect comes from sources with the City Council who asked to remain anonymous. Eyewitness accounts of troop carriers moving south on Interstate 25 between Santa Fe and Albuquerque could not be immediately confirmed.

The demonstration and shootings which triggered violence across the city took place at the Albertsen's supermarket on Isleta Blvd SW. At about 6:00 p.m., several hundred local residents began to gather in the parking lot outside the store. South Valley community groups had called for the demonstration the previous day, in response to accusations of hoarding, price gouging, and favoritism against the store's corporate management. The crowd size soon swelled to 2,000 or more, according to eyewitnesses.

Police appeared on the scene at about 7:00 p.m. At least two dozen patrol cars and several SWAT teams were reported gathering on the fringes of the demonstration. Two police helicopters patrolled the airspace in the neighborhood as police ordered the protesters to disperse via loudspeaker. The police warnings came at about 7:15 p.m. The sound of gunshots was heard soon thereafter, according to eyewitnesses. Police and community leaders each accused the other of firing first.

Organizers of the Albertsen's protest say police opened fire indiscriminately, without provocation, pouring dozens of rounds of live fire into a dense crowd of demonstrators. "They just started shooting at anything," said Albert Romero, President of the South Valley Coalition of Neighborhood Associations.  "There was no cause for it, none at all," Romero said, his voice breaking. "These were peaceful people going hungry. What the hell are we supposed to do?"

Deputy Police Chief Joseph Vigil said in a statement to media that police were fired upon by gunmen within the crowd and "used legitimate, appropriate force to defend themselves and stabilize the situation."

Emergency room personnel at University of New Mexico Hospital confirmed five deaths by gunshot wound among victims treated at that facility. Eleven other victims of the Albertsen's violence were treated for various injuries. Four of these are said to be in critical condition. Officials at university hospital and other medical centers reported scores of additional victims as violence spread across the city. Health care providers say precise numbers of dead and wounded are impossible to estimate, owing to "the fluidity of the situation," as one hospital administrator put it. 

2: Barelas neighborhood, Albuquerque, July 3, 2015

Tonight's riot at the Albertsen's supermarket, and subsequent violence, comes amidst an acute worsening of the national economic crisis in recent weeks. Local food prices have spiked dramatically, as they have across the nation. Economists blame poor agricultural output in much of the world and the latest explosion in global oil prices. After declining to $110 per barrel late last year, oil closed today at an average price of $272 on global commodity exchanges. Gas at the pump in Albuquerque hit a new record this week, according to the American Automobile Association, averaging $9.61 per gallon.

A seemingly endless litany of national economic woes has worsened the picture. Relentlessly increasing unemployment has fueled an eruption of mass poverty unseen in the United States since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The nation's official unemployment rate stands at 19.7%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the New Mexico jobless rate reported at 22.3%. Meanwhile, draconian fiscal austerity at the local and national level has cut social services such as food stamps, Medicaid, and unemployment relief.

The crisis has exacted a grim toll in Albuquerque and around the state. Food shortages, once unthinkable, have become a fact of American life in the last year. Skyrocketing oil prices have driven up costs for fertilizers, pesticides, tractor fuel, and other petroleum-based essentials of industrial farming. Soaring transportation costs have bankrupted trucking companies and kept food from reaching supermarket shelves in sufficient quantity to keep up with demand.

Meanwhile, New Mexico's drought emergency enters its twenty fifth consecutive month. Governor Martinez has repeatedly urged voluntary residential and commercial water conservation measures, to little apparent affect. Today's high temperature of 111 degrees Fahrenheit marked the eleventh time in the last thirteen days that the temperature has broken the century mark.

So far, authorities in Washington have warned state governments to expect little in the way of federal assistance. President Mitch Daniels says other national needs must take priority, including the ongoing U.S. budget crisis and military operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Vice President Mike Huckabee, speaking at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque last week, promised that essential national security facilities in New Mexico would remain untouched by the nation's fiscal emergency.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has called on the Daniels administration to institute food rationing and subsidies for the middle and working classes. So far, White House officials remain cool to any such move toward what a National Economic Council staffer called "failed big government policies our nation can ill afford in the present situation."

Albuquerque citizens have reacted with growing anger and frustration to food shortages at local stores. Albertsen's, in particular, has faced accusations of favoritism. Community activists say the supermarket chain continues to sell food at bulk discounts, directly from wholesale distribution centers, to corporations, government officials, and wealthy individuals. "It's outrageous and it's immoral," said Miranda Begay, a neighborhood coordinator for the Albuquerque Transition Network. Referring to Albertsen's management, Begay declared, "We've got families on the verge of starvation everywhere in this city and they're selling food at cost to people who have everything they could ever want."

Albertsen's representatives have denied those charges. They say the ongoing shortage of food staples results purely from high fuel prices and global market conditions in recent months.

An investigation by Duke City, published in a series of reports in April and May this year, documented at least five apparent instances of bulk discount sales to corporate customers by Albertsen's employees.

Mayor Darren White's office has indicated that maintaining order will be his top priority in responding to the economic emergency. "People have to know that the government's going to keep the peace," he told worshipers last Sunday at New Hope Evangelical Church in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights. "Without law there can be no liberty," the mayor declared. "And liberty is one thing we're going to keep in this hour of our country's greatest peril."

Community activists have taken a different tack, emphasizing grassroots engagement for social justice as the key to a prosperous future. Environmental, labor, and religious groups have organized an array of grassroots, non-governmental efforts for economic relief over the last three years. Governments at the city, state, and national level face bankruptcy, but local initiatives have tried their best to fill what seems a growing gap between public resources and public needs.

Albuquerque Transition Network's Melissa Begay tried to sound a note of hope about the future. "There's so much good that we could do," she said, as television coverage of this evening's violence unfolded in her Barelas area home. At an an impromptu meeting with fellow activists in her living room, Begay said, "Neighborhoods are starting to come together, to help each other. We've got teams of master gardeners teaching the basics of urban farming. We've got teachers passing on real trades and real skills that people are going to need to take care of their families. Carpentry, mechanics, you name it. We can do so much. The city could help, if they wanted to. They should be helping us instead of killing us."

Others in the community reacted to tonight's events with disbelief and despair. Only blocks away from the meeting of activists at the home of Melissa Begay, a bleeding man comforted his two children while their family-owned hardware store burned nearby. The man, who asked not to be named, said he'd been wounded by gunfire from Albuquerque police. A bloody wound to his shoulder had been patched with a makeshift bandage.

"I never seen the like," he said. "Never here, anything like this. I fought in Waziristan for this country," he said, referring to service in the Pakistan war with the United States Army. "I thought this kind of stuff only happened in other places."

Where does he think we go from here?

The man paused, watching the fire burning across the street. "They say this is the end times, you know? That maybe this is it. They say Albuquerque is dying. And the world too, you know? But if this is the way it's going to be, then maybe I don't want it all to go on, right? Maybe it's all better to just let it go."

* * * * * *

Public domain photos from Wikimedia Commons: