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

Friday, November 4, 2011

The sovereign's justice, circa 2500 C.E.

Nerrivik Harbor, Victoria Island province, Arctic Ocean. July 4, 2502 (old calendar).
Source file at

13 High Summer, 2502

Report to the Sovereign Convention
regarding the Reformulary (Third) of National Jurisprudence

by James Asiaq Hernandez Washington
Investigator, Collaborative of Ecological Social Inquiry
Aurora University
Nerrivik Harbor, Victoria Island province
Arctic Confederation of America

Gentle ones, 

May this letter find the emissaries prosperous and well. Enclosed with this parcel you will find our most recent draft of chapters 1, 2, and 3 of the Reformulary, covering basic rights and obligations of the communities and of the beings entrusted to their care. 

Adhering to guidance from the convention, we have included in our foundational research the surviving legal records of the former United States of America and its successor polities. Although many records have been lost, substantial documentation exists for intervals between the declaration of United States independence in 1776 and the dissolution of the Third Constitutional Republic in 2132. We believe our inquiry has produced insights useful to the synthesis of a new legal understanding relevant to the needs of our own time.

Our existing legal culture, of course, differs radically from the ancient common law of England and its North American settlements. English law originated when Norman conquerors fused their own military-feudal institutions with tribal customs of the indigenous Anglo-Saxons in the centuries after 1066. The resulting legal system embodied the basic political philosophy of the Middle Ages: that government authority and legitimacy flowed ultimately from a monarch, ordained by the creator of the universe to rule over a people. The monarch was sovereign, claiming a monopoly on the use of force and therefore the power to make any decisions necessary for safeguarding the realm. Ultimately, the realm and its sovereign were the same. Over time, lords and parliament contested the king's power, but the theory of the king's justice as the expression of national sovereignty remained. 

The independence of Britain's North American colonies in 1776 created a wholly different political sovereignty. Inspired by precursors of the Greco-Roman era and the medieval Italian republics, the founding institutions of the United States located political sovereignty in the human population of the new federal republic. Although acknowledging diverse beliefs in a greater divine order to the cosmos, the new concept of sovereignty relied on human reasoning for legitimacy. It required that any authority exercised among human beings be done so only with their consent. The resulting government was, in time, the first of many in the carbon energy era to idealize democracy. 

The behavior of those governments in practice proved very different from the ideal. While fighting and defeating totalitarian adversaries in twentieth century Eurasia, the democratic powers created a global system channeling real political and legal power to a tiny fraction of the human population. An elite class of managers oversaw the capital and technology necessary for global society to function. Therefore, the politics and laws of that global society failed to attain anything close to genuine democracy, declarations to the contrary notwithstanding. 

Ultimately, this fundamental flaw destroyed the global capitalist order. By channeling resources and therefore political power to a tiny elite, capitalism created institutions immune to change when ecological cataclysm began. Enriching itself by destroying the biosphere, the elite had no incentive to take corrective action when fossil energy depletion, ecosystem collapse, and climate super-heating accelerated in the early twenty first century. Action to prevent collapse would mean ending the exploitation sustaining the elite's political power. And so the collapse came. 

Historians today endlessly debate whether the period of the most profound social disintegration, from the abrupt breakup of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet until the Renewal of the twenty third century, constituted a so called "Long Night." Lately, that era has been relabeled as the Long Fire, or the Long Twilight, or the Long Death.

All of these views acknowledge the continuation of cultural frameworks from the old world into the new era of a planet made wholly alien to its former self. In the Earth's new climate, human cities today congregate in the temperate Arctic Ocean rim and the the thawing river valleys of Antarctica. The former centers of population in the middle latitudes lie in ruins -- a vast expanse of desert and rubble across most of the Americas, Africa, and Eurasia. In this planet-encircling graveyard of nation-states, cities and civilization have become impossible. A dead zone encompasses most of our planet, ravaged by super-storms, extreme heat, and plant extinction that destroyed any possible basis for stable agriculture and infrastructure. Only at the newly thawing poles could temperate climate let the Renewal take place.

If the former world is passed away, ours still retains old beliefs in the rights of human beings against their ruling authorities. Many alternative political and legal systems have been attempted in the last century and a half of rebirth at the north and south planetary poles. Societies of northern Scandinavia, Murmansk, and the Urals have generally adopted the old Napoleonic legal architecture. The Napoleonic civil law tradition, of course, now bears the legacy of five hundred years of military regimentation, resource wars, and epic migration.

The same is true in the river valleys and Arctic ports of Siberia, thoroughly conquered by generational floods of Chinese. The Sino-Siberian civilization has evolved from a wasteland of simple warlord city states four centuries ago to an uneasy melange of political and legal traditions from across Asia today. Many of these traditions reflect the eco-pacifism of the Great Teacher of Islam, Rashid the Blessed, who converted millions of people on his twenty third century journey from Spain to Kamchatka. Still other Siberian nations practice Chinese neo-Confucian law or Hindu-Buddhist fusions. Patagonia and the Antarctic nations have generally adopted the Second Ius Commune of the Catholic Church.

In the tiny outposts of Australia and southern Africa, a variant of the Anglo-American common law survives. The common law lives on in Arctic North America as well, still faithful, in spite of epic changes, to ideals of human dignity and limited government. Those ideals predate the collapse of half a millennium ago.

For all of this diversity, today's plethora of legal-political systems share a common historic legacy. Formed in the generations since the collapse, they have all abandoned the human-centered political sovereignty of the old world. They did so because that kind of sovereignty brought the old world to an end. In its place, the source of today's authority and law rests not in the divine power of kings or the reasoned will of the people but in the transcendent forces of nature itself. The Gaian matter-energy exchanges of this planet have become the sole legitimate source of power and justice in human societies.  Religious and secular people differ on whether Gaia is literally conscious. All agree that we live of the mercy of her power, or its, forever.

And so we render fealty therein, in fact and in law, for the remainder of human existence on this planet. Our constitutions, our parliaments, our executives, and our police reflect the hard won wisdom of five centuries.

Our purpose now is to use this legacy for the benefit of ourselves and our posterity. We have it in our power to make the world over again. And so we will.

The most popular post ever on this blog -- mobilizing for national emergency

Google very helpfully provides me with data about hits on this lovely blog. I can find out all sorts of information on who comes here, from which city in the world, to read which particular post, for how long, from what service provider. I can even tell which particular key words were typed into a search engine to find this here blog. Keywords that readers used to find this blog in the last few days include "termite farts," "Roman moat," and "Picard personal army."

The post on this blog that is most often read by readers is "Mobilization for national emergency: lessons of World War II for the age of eco-collapse," posted by me on April 15, 2011. This post has received 37.5% more hits than its next nearest competitor. It receives at least a few hits every week, sometimes even more than whatever posts have gone up that particular week. 

I try to attach cosmic significance to the relative popularity of that particular essay compared to other entries on this blog. I'm not justified in finding such significance, of course. This blog doesn't get a lot of hits, despite my periodic hopes that it might break through to some sort of significant readership. I haven't done enough promotional work for that to happen, mainly because I have too many other things to do. 

Still, I end up thinking about why some patchwork thoughts about economic production in World War II seem to be so interesting to the few readers who find their way here. In that essay, I tried to argue that industrial societies undergoing extreme disruption can continue to maintain basic government and business functions, even in desperate circumstances. Since national institutions and infrastructure did not rapidly, totally collapse under the extreme physical disruption of World War II, I contended that they would not do so under the extreme climate and resource disruption likely to emerge in the next 50 years or so (after that is another story).  

I may nor may not be correct in my argument. Whether I am or not, I still think that national mobilizations for World War II provides one of the most relevant real-life examples of what a viable large-scale response to climate change and resource depletion would look like. Such a response, currently, is not politically feasible. I believe this will change, sometime between now and 2050, as the physical consequences of planet wide ecological collapse become ever more direct and undeniable to national governments. And even to avid readers of the mainstream media. 

We can see tantalizing early hints of a sea change already. The United States and Russia are making plans for the industrialization of the Arctic, for example. The two governments, we can infer, see where the planetary ecology is headed and what will be necessary -- in their view -- to prosper in a changed world. U.S. and Russian efforts are underway to establish oil and gas drilling around the Arctic Ocean on a massive scale, with planned military and naval deployments to support economic development efforts. These plans suggest the eventual establishment of frontier towns and ports along the Arctic Ocean, as conditions there become increasingly temperate, the ice retreats, and the tundra thaws. Eventually, there will be cities -- communities of tens of thousands of people or more. In and around them we will see the coming and going of tankers, freighters, submarines, aircraft carriers, helicopters, strike aircraft, and troop formations. 

To me, as someone who cares about the future of the Earth's biosphere and the creation of social systems based on something other than predation, this is all horrifying. Mainstream media and policy wonks, once they awaken from their current zombified stupor of ecological ignorance, will see the Arctic industrialization and arms race -- of course -- as a complex series of trade offs among ecological, economic, and geopolitical realities. In the reality that exists outside of such ideological blather, the development of the Arctic will help ensure that human civilization burns. 

The rest of us will be left to pursue more local solutions, carving out a tolerable existence at the neighborhood, town, and city level as best we can -- within the constraints of larger systems of power and force. Those systems, increasingly, will be operating under emergency conditions, seeking to maintain order and prioritize the flow of remaining resources to corporate and military assets vital to the enrichment of nation-states and their ruling elites. 

My own part in all of that will consist of finding ways to put my 2014 law degree (fingers crossed) to good use, helping to prevent the worst local abuses (e.g. natural gas fracking, abusive behavior by leaders of military facilities) or lay the local foundation, ever so tentative and fragile, of a potential post-carbon, post-corporate future (through, for example, changes in rules for land use and economic exploitation). 

It will not be boring. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Again with the cold fusion! Or, how [a quack invention, coincidentally located in Italy] is about to save us all from doom

I make no claim to know anything detailed about this, but evidently two Italian "entrepreneurs" are making quite a fuss claiming to have achieved cheap, table-top, room-temperature nuclear fusion. You can read about it here.

The two enterprising "inventors" have been demonstrating a device which claims to achieve fusion of nickel and hydrogen in water, without the need for solar-interior levels of heat, and without releasing enough radiation to blast everyone in the room into drooling, semi-molten, cancer-infested blobs of protoplasm.

So far, the two Italian guys have not made details of their technology, or anything about the methodology and the alleged science behind it, available to scientists who, like, you know, would like to be able to replicate this potentially revolutionary phenomenon in their own labs. The Italian dudes won't allow such replication, but they are evidently negotiating with Italian universities for "contracts" allowing the "entrepreneurs" to research the physical phenomena allegedly underway.


I'm willing to bet $100 that this claim of cold fusion will turn out to be one hundred percent crap. By which I mean, the results will never (within the next, let's say, five years) be unambiguously replicated systematically by independent, professional, credible scientists and then published in a peer-reviewed journal and then go on to survive the intense scrutiny to follow such publication.

* * * * *

In 1989, two American guys in Utah made much the same claim about room-temperature nuclear fusion. It turned out to be total crap. Over the years, an underground community of rogue researchers has flourished, claiming all sorts of data about heat release without harmful radiation, which allegedly can be explained only by nuclear fusion or a fusion-like nanoscopic process. Twenty one years after the Utah cold fusion fiasco, the revolution in cheap, virtually limitless clean pseudo-semi-quasi-nuclear energy remains just around the corner.

Of course, "hot fusion" suffers from much the same difficulty. It is perpetually about 20-50 years away, as opposed to just around the corner. The difference is that hot fusion researchers actually adhere to scientific standards of transparency and publish in real scientific journals.

* * * * *

I have a rule of thumb regarding certain extraordinary claims. In particular, regarding claims that are so extraordinary as to be staggeringly, world-shakingly, nigh cosmic in their potential importance. My rule of thumb is that these claims are always wrong.

And, contrary to normal standards of open-mindedness and academic rigor, there is no need to investigate the claims. At all. They can be dismissed as lunacy, ignorance, or stupidity. There is no need to sift evidence, counter arguments, or exert any cognition whatsoever. Much less engage in face-to-face conversation. Ever.

The only exception would arise in the event that there is some viscerally staggering bit of evidence, itself stupendously out of the ordinary, to suggest that further investigation is warranted. In practice, such evidence is never presented in regard to these claims. Instead, you get the garden variety version of the claim, just as it's been presented on multiple prior occasions.

For example, someone claims room-temperature, table-top, radiation-free nuclear (or quasi nuclear, whatever) fusion. And the evidence for this is: take my word for it.

Or, as in the case of the Italian researchers, the evidence lies in "demonstrations" that produce heat in a tabletop device, without any access by independent observers to the device, the data or the methodology behind the heat production. Basically, the Italian guys are saying: take my word for it.

The believers in such claims always claim that they are, in fact, offering extraordinary evidence. But in practice, they never do. It always boils down to flimsy bullshit that really amounts to "take my word for it."

Conclusion: each new arising of the same tired claim of a world-shaking, revolutionary phenomenon can be dismissed, out of hand, as bullshit.

One is not supposed to put it in quite those stark terms. I do. Because I'm tired of wasting my fucking time arguing about such topics. They involve claims such as:

1) Cold fusion in a laboratory is occurring (no independent, subject-to-inspection evidence presented).

2) The U.S. government planned and executed the 9/11 attacks (no transcripts of conversations among the conspirators provided).

3) Extraterrestrial vehicles are routinely traveling through the Earth's atmosphere and abducting human beings to probe their bodily orifices (no submission of sample alien vehicle to peer reviewed journal provided).

4) Human beings can levitate solid objects with their minds (no live demonstrations of non-trivial, unambiguous results provided).

5) Sipping water can cure human ailments because the water "remembers" the ailment (no live demonstrations of non-trivial, unambiguous results provided).

6) Patterns of luminous stellar objects distributed in a certain pattern in the terrestrial sky determine human personality traits (ummm.... yeah).

7) Written records 30 or more years after the death of a supposedly real human being, who lived 2000 years ago, demonstrate that this human being rose from the dead and today disapproves, from a spectral afterworld, of how you have sex with other human beings (sigh).

8) Human personalities survive the disintegration of their neuro-chemical foundation after brain death, and proceed to hang around a house that was traumatic for them in real life. But never, say, a department store, or a bathroom.

9) Human bodies are permeated by an invisible energy field -- undetectable by conventional scientific methods -- that determines fundamental aspects of human health and can be radically altered by sticking needles through it, in a way that is distinguishable from the release of analgesic chemicals by needle penetration and other conventional biochemical processes.

Et cetera.

So. I bet $100 against the Italian cold fusion claim. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Natural resource scarcity and the global debt crisis: exploring the connection

From Gail the Actuary, one of the top peak oil bloggers, comes an analysis of the interplay among resource depletion, pollution, global finance, and economic growth. Or lack of growth, as the case may be. The essay is well worth checking out.

Its bottom line? Physical resources are intimately connected to current economic and political crises. Not someday, in a nebulous worst case scenario, but now, today. Example: feedback loops among oil prices, food availability, and debt levels. Gail the Actuary notes:

[H]igher oil prices tend to be associated with higher food prices... When prices of oil and food rise, consumers (except for those making more money because of higher oil and food prices) tend to cut back on discretionary spending. This cut-back in spending leads to lay-offs and recession in discretionary segments of the economy. Some laid-off workers default on their debts, and businesses scale back their plans for expansion, because of the “bad economy”. As a result, they too need less debt.

So debt works well in a growing economy, but once an economy hits high oil prices and recession, debt works much less well. An economy has positive feed back loops from debt in a growing economy, but once oil limits (in terms of high prices) start to hit, feedback loops work in reverse–consumers and producers see less need for debt, and in fact, may default on past loans. Shrinking debt levels make it increasingly difficult for GDP to grow.

Implication: foreign policy gurus who think about the current global economic crisis without reference to natural resources are getting it completely wrong.

It would be like trying to understand the risks of a forest fire without looking at the current heat, temperature, and humidity, focusing instead only on the drunken dumb-asses who leave smoldering fires all over the place. If you focus purely on the human factors related to fire causation -- e.g. prohibiting intrusion of campers into the forest, closely policing the behavior of human visitors -- you'll miss other causes that have more to do with the broader natural resources context. So while you're busy inspecting a Winnebago for fire hazards, you'll miss the fact that a normally harmless lightning strike on the other side of the forest is setting off a conflagration. Normally, the lightning would have ignited only a nuisance brush fire, if the climate conditions were more benign. But now the random bolt of electricity sets a fire that will be ignored in its early stages, escalating unimpeded to catastrophic dimensions, because you were too busy focusing on the goddamn Winnebago.

Heck of a job, Brownie.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Letters from Occupy Eugene

Hi folks,
   No pictures today, I'm afraid, I've only been able to make it out to the protest after dark, and my camera is teh suxxor at night, with a flash range of approximately ten centimeters. Anyway, Occupy Eugene is still going strong, and has actually grown significantly since Saturday night; last night, I estimate that at least three hundred people were encamped on a small city block two hundred feet on a side. The medical tent is well stocked, and was being attending by an honest-to-Einstein MD when I dropped in. The food tent continues to dish up free, hot meals thrice a day for anyone who is hungry, thanks to generous donations from the larger community. And every two minutes or so, a car passing on busy downtown streets honks in solidarity at the camp.
   This is all very cool, of course, and testifies to the staying power of the protest, logistically. But what is really impressing me about it is the way that the Occupation is being governed.
   See, I was deeply skeptical about the idea of "consensus government" at the start. I've had a lot of interaction with democracy, as a voter at national and state levels and a direct participant at local levels, and I have not in general been impressed by the ability of large groups of people to Get Shit Done. When I heard that the Occupation in Eugene, like those in other cities, was adopting consensus, whereby any single person in an arbitrary assembly has effective veto power over any proposal, I thought "well, this'll last about a day." Consensus worked great for organizing meetings that were at least half pep-rally, I though, but as soon as this is being utilized at twice daily town hall meetings in an actual village (and at this point, no other word captures what is going on down in Park Blocks), it'll fall apart.
   I'm delighted to report that I was wrong. Four days into the Occupation, consensus is being used very effectively to do everything from establish talking points for media contacts, to determining quiet hours for the settlement (a pair of issues that came up last night while I was crawling around in the generator tent trying to figure out where the hell Engineering had put the ground fault interrupter, but I'm getting sidetracked). Which is not to say that there was never dissent; people did block proposals, initially, but this precipitated discussion and amendment of the proposal at hand, rather than killing it outright.
   At this point I should lay out the mechanics of a consensus-based meeting. Like Robert's Rules of Parliamentary Procedure, there is a system to consensus. Basically, a consensus meeting proceeds very similarly to other Robert's Rules sorts of situations, with an agenda, a speaker's list, old and new business. Rather than a single chair person, however, there is a group of "facilitators," who have a sort of informal social authority to run the meeting, but do not have the authority to deny speakers the floor; excessive violations of speaker's order or rules of conduct are enforced by the entire body, not the "chair." Anybody can put forth a motion, and the following discussion strongly resembles a standard parliamentary session, with points of information and procedure, direct responses, and speakers for and against taking the floor. When someone calls the question, however, the voting gets interesting: voting is by display of hands, with hand signals for three votes: "agree," block," and "stand aside."
   Since consensus requires no dissenting votes, a single "block" stops a resolution from passing. However, as I mentioned before, this does not mean that a proposal dies; it gets kicked right back into discussion. In my experience, after a decent amount of conversation most "blockers" were appeased, and the few that weren't would "stand aside." "Standing aside," I found out, is one of the ways to "vote" in a consensus system, and it operates something like abstention; the voter is saying that they are not completely happy with the proposal as it stands, but will not block its passage. This is a key point, as it allows someone to register their displeasure with a measure, without hanging up the process. Unlike a standard majority rule system, this places enormous social pressure on someone genuinely voting "No" by blocking. By exercising a power of veto, you are pretty much required to explain your reasoning. This makes it much harder for people to exploit the veto than I had originally thought.
   I'm not suggesting that consensus is superior to majority rule as a democratic system. In fact, in any situation where every voting member is not sitting in the same room and voting openly (not in secret), it would be completely unworkable. But it IS, evidently, a workable system for a community of some hundreds of people. And given the speculations here and elsewhere about the impact peak oil and climate change are going to have on the mean size of human settlements in the future, I think it is interesting to consider alternative democratic mechanisms for small communities. As I continue to cover the Eugene Occupation, I'll be paying very close attention to its development at a municipal system.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy Eugene: Occupation Begins

If I was in charge, this picture would worry me. Photo by Tracy Sydor,

So I marched with Occupy Eugene yesterday.

The Eugene police department estimates that between 1,500 and 2,000 people marched through downtown yesterday; that would be the protest in the history of a city famous for them. The march terminated at the Park Blocks, four blocks of plaza and garden in the heart of downtown that usually play host to craft and farmer's markets.

We're marketing a different kind of crop here.

I was amazed at how quickly a tent city sprang up in the Park Blocks; I helped the build crew a bit, but I had no idea what all they had up their sleeves. Part of the advantage of being a group with unprecedentedly broad social appeal is that we had everyone on hand, from a teenage apprentice carpenter to a boomer general contractor with a crane on his truck. In less than three hours, we'd erected a stage for the general assembly, a children's play area, a kitchen, an information booth, and a first aid station, and wired them all for electricity with a heavy duty generator (not even sure where we got that one).

Naturally, there was even a vegan menu.

A volunteer medic from Whitebird Clinic organizes donated medical supplies in the "mash."

The first general assembly of the Occupation.

This Occupation has no permit, but we've established friendly contacts with the markets that usually utilize the site, the mayor's office, and the police, who are "taking things on a daily basis," but don't foresee disrupting the protest as long as it remains clean and peaceful. For now, the Occupation is off to a great start, and I expect it will only grow larger as the site is developed and more people join in as it becomes apparent that the police will not disrupt the event, at least in the short term. I'll continue to report on this as I am able.

Park Blocks Fountain, October 15, 2012, 9PM. Day One of the Occupation.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

One of the best quotes I've seen about Ayn Rand

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

--quoted from Paul Krugman's blog (

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Occupy Eugene

Occupy Eugene protestors organize at the U of O campus.

So, the Occupy Eugene General Assembly was last night.

Jillian and a friend show off signs we made the night before.

I've been to a lot of demonstrations and community organizing events, but never to something with quite this sort of energy. At maybe 200 attendees (not everyone was there at once, there was some turnover), it wasn't the biggest mass event I've seen, but it was the most active of its size I've encountered. The event wasn't very well organized initially, but there was much more spontaneous organization happening than I am accustomed to at these sorts of things. The organizers obviously intended to do committee breakouts, but what those comittees would be and who would "chair" them was decided on the spot, organically. People who obviously were not associated with the original planners took up leadership roles right away, directing people to the committee breakouts, talking to new arrivals, and passing out literature that they had brought or swapped with others.

Resarch Committee in action.

The committee breakouts actually accomplished many of the things they set out to discuss; I attended the "Research" breakout, tasked with developing a plan for gathering information about other Occupations around the country, what works for them, problems they've encountered, and how to make that information available to the rest of the group. Talk centered heavily on the website being developed by a handful of techie volunteers on donated server space, with special emphasis on installing an anonymous forum system to allow free sharing of information. Other breakouts included Public Relations, who were already fielding questions from the press who had beguin to show up in sizeable numbers, Sanitation, Morale, and Legal Concerns. Throughout I was impressed with how decentralized the leadership of everything was; an important characteristic for a group that can expect to run afoul of local law enforcement shortly.

The occupation itself is planned to begin on October 15, at a location to be determined. I am continuing to participate in this group, and will update as soon as I know more.Meanwhile, visit Occupy Eugene's website!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

For the record.

Blog note: First, I need to apologize. Sort of. This post does not really fit in with the usual topics here at Seldon's Gate. It has precious little to do with peak oil, sustainable living, or the politics of collapse. It is, however, part of my story, and one thing I've picked up from social justice blogging is that our stories, as individuals, matter as much in the long run as the sweeping strokes of history. And as I'm coming out today, I'm using every forum, every website, where I have a voice. What I'm about to tell you is part of why I got into this project; you see, protecting and maintaining social progress in the coming storm is deeply, personally relevant to me, and that's why I am here.

For the record:

I am polyamorous.

I seek and maintain close romantic and sexual relationships with multiple people simultaneously.

I am married. I am happy.

I debated for some time about writing this. Not because I feel any shame whatsoever, or even because it involved revealing some great secret in my life; most people who know me me more than casually for more than a couple of weeks figure it out, because I am not circumspect.

Rather, I worried about being ostentatious. I worried that coming out, even adopting that term for it, would be throwing my privilege in the faces of people who have faced and fought far more vicious and focused backlash than I ever have, or really expect to. I worried that this post is unneccessarily flaunting personal information in the view of those whose business it really isn't and whose interest has not been expressed. I didn't want to confront people with something that would make them uncomfortable, or would come across as TMI. I worried that I would be perceived, perhaps even rightly, as being desirous of attention, or worse, being seen as advocating my "lifestyle," of trying to win "converts."

So I sat on it, for a long time, long after I had decided to stop hiding this thing about myself. Because I WAS hiding it, for a while, more out of habit than anything. While polyamorists face much less in the way of direct persecution than LGBTQ folk, or any number of other marginalized groups, "less" does not mean "none." If nothing else, I was worried about my family's reaction to it, although that's all water under the bridge now (you sometimes find support and condemnation where you least expect it). I was also planning on having kids, once upon a time, and raising one's children free of harrassment is very difficult for the openly polyamorous. In many precincts, an encounter with social services is as dangerous for poly folk as queer folk, and given how easy it is to hide being poly (particularly when you live with a single partner, rather than several), I was reticent to lay that landmine in our path. I will admit that when my partner and I decided not to have children, it made the decision to publicly declare my polyamory quite a bit easier.

So why am I finally doing this?

Visibility. Because I am hopeful that social and legal recognition of polyamorous relationships is more likely now than it has ever been. Despite the squealing and gnashing of teeth from the dinosaurs on the American Right, we live in a society where more and more municipalities recognize gay marriage; where increasing numbers of people are eschewing the traditional family model of "marry young, have many children" in favor of lifestyles and relationship modes that actually meet their needs, and those of their partners. More and more people are "backing into" polyamory, as the much dreaded "hook-up culture" of casual and friendly sex leads many to openly question why emotional intimacy cannot be shared as easily as physical. In this environment of questioning and exploration, I think it's of crtical importance that people know that the traditional model of relationships, serial monogamy, is not the only model, nor necessarily the best. It works just fine for many people I know, and that's gravy! Again, I'm not here to win converts. But living in a free society means having choices, and having choices means knowing your alternatives.

So now that the cat is out of the bag, as it were, some of you reading this may have some questions. There are lots and lots of good resources about polyamory on teh intarwebz, but I thought I would address some of the specific questions I've personally received over the years.

1.) What do you mean by "polyamory?" Aren't you basically cheating on your wife?

"Polyamory" means many things to many people, but to me it is essentially a brand of ethical non-monogamy. Practicing it means that people I have relationships with know, explicitly, that they don't have a monopoly on my emotional energies, that I am free to engage in relationships with others, and THEY ARE COOL WITH THIS. The ethical part means that everyone I am involved with knows everything about my romantic life; all of my partners know of each other, and I am explicit and careful in my communications about expectations, whether that's making sure everyone knows that my relationship with Jillian (my "primary" partner) is central to my life and has to take priority sometimes, or that using safer sex practices is not optional with me. Because everyone is fully informed and enthusiastically consenting, no vows or agreements are being broken and thus no cheating is going on.

2.) And Jillian is cool with this?

Yes, she is. She's also enthusiastic about me writing this post, which was really important for me to be sure of because I'm necessarily outing her as a polyamorist, as well. In fact, we met in a polyamorous framework; we were introduced by my girlfriend in 2005, and started dating with her blessing. The idea that I could explore a new and exciting connection with someone, without being forced to abandon an extant relationship that had nothing wrong with it, was revolutionary and game-changing for me. So Jillian and I have been poly from the very beginning.

3.) Is this a sign that your relationship is on the rocks?

Sometimes I'm asked if we opened our relationship to "save" it; read any dating and sex advice column and you'll read letters from people in monogamous relationships who, faced with some fundemental sexual incompatability, consider opening their relationship sexually as a solution. I actually think that can be a pretty bad idea, as changing the fundemental structure of a committed relationship when everyone is under stress rarely ends well. As I said above, Jillian and I have ALWAYS been poly, so far from being a desparate attempt to save a weakening relationship, the fact that we've been together for six years, and married for three, in that context says something about our committment to one another.

4.) Why can't you REALLY commit to each other?

This one is from the family. I'm frequently confronted with the idea that I'm not really committed to my partner at all, since I date and sleep with other people. If I REALLY loved her, the narrative goes, I would save my emotional (and, perhaps most importantly, sexual) energies exclusively for her.


Honestly, I'm a little peeved that main stream culture thinks of "commitment" purely as "not banging other people." I would think more important signs of committment are unwavering emotional support in times of crisis, financial partnership as we seek to attain our goals, and an explicit unity of life plans that will see us living together and striving for the same things for the rest of our lives. I see myself growing old and dying next to this person, and should fortune favor me that is exactly what I intend to do. The constant insinuation that this is negated by my going out dancing and having a bit of a snog with someone else now and again is as ridiculous as it is infuriating. The fact that Jillian and I aren't "faithful" isn't a sign of our lack of regard for each other, but rather our lack of regard for a values system that is meaningless to both of us. I consistently consider my partner's needs before my own, and that is as committed as you get.

5.) So, you're just slutty, then?

Well, I wouldn't say JUST slutty. ahem But no, I'm not. While some of my sexual relationships are less romantically intense than others, the emphasis of polyamory is more emotional than sexual. I take all of my relationships seriously, and even most of my "casual" relationships had a strong emotional component before there was a sexual one, and if it wasn't there before, it developed soon after. I'm no "sluttier" than any single person in our society who dates regularly and has an active social life. Indeed, since I am not limited to a single partner, and am emotionally and sexually fulfilled, I'm probably a bit more cautious and selective in my dating than someone who is looking desparately for a new relationship so they can GET LAID OMG.

Those are the most common questions I hear, but it is by no means a comprehensive list. I want to emphasize that I'm writing this post to answer questions. I'm explicitly trying to raise the profile of polyamory as a valid and legitimate relationship model, so I'm more than happy to talk about it and answer questions about it, anytime it's appropriate to do so. If you're reading this, you know someone who is poly, and look, I only have one head!

It's a start.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dare we hope for an "American Autumn?"

So. That's what democracy looks like these days.

For the last eleven days, lower Manhattan has been alive with mass protest; catalyzed by a movement called Occupy Wall Street, this protest is very broad, not so much making specific demands as displaying systemic dissatisfaction with the immense social inequalities plaguing our country at this time. As David Graeber at the Guardian puts it:

We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt. Most, I found, were of working-class or otherwise modest backgrounds, kids who did exactly what they were told they should: studied, got into college, and are now not just being punished for it, but humiliated – faced with a life of being treated as deadbeats, moral reprobates.

The protestors in New York have inspired sister-actions in Los Angeles, San Fransisco, and Chicago, with more being organized in Detroit, Denver, Cleveland, Boston, Phoenix, Seattle, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.

Naturally, these protests have not been getting much mainstream coverage. Ok, essentially none at all, which should come as a shock to no one. I only became aware of the protests myself two days ago, when police started doing what they do best when the cameras aren't rolling: violently surpressing the protestors. Feminist and social justice blogs are alive with this, and Anonymous, bless their little anarchist hearts, have started going straight for the cops who perpetrate the violence.

Ed called it back in February. There are global stresses and forces at work here, and a groundswell of popular outcry in the United States was inevitable. The question now, it how it will proceed. Will this be another flash-in-the-pan protest campaign that dies because no one hears about it? Or will it escalate, as the corporate technocrats in their panic deploy the dogs and firehoses? It's too early to tell, I think. But the most important thing we can do right now is to spread the word, and join in the protests where we can. Also, if some broad unrest does manage to occur in this most apathetic of nations, the Feds may well respond with the sort of DNS shutdown that Egypt and Iran deployed against their own protestors in the last couple of years. Those protestors were able to circumvent the DNS shutdown by KNOWING THE IP ADDRESSES of key websites, thus:


These addresses were pinged from our apartment in Eugene, OR this morning. They may change, and there may be better servers closer to you if you don't live in the Emerald Empire. To ping your own IPs: enter your command prompt (start->run->type "cmd" for WinXP; start->accessories->command prompt for Win7), and type (for example) "ping" to retrieve the IP address for that server. This command sends a few packets of data to the target server and times how long it takes them to return; usually used to determine the quality of a connection, this command also returns the IP address of the target server. Obviously, since this depends on domain names, the ping command as I have described it won't work if DNS is down, so be proactive! I recommend that you keep a regularly updated list of IP addresses handy!

The revolution will not be televised. Spread the word.

photo: Sam Glewis, h/t to Melissa McEwan

Friday, September 16, 2011

On "The Limits to Growth," by the Club of Rome: were they wrong?

Cover of the 2004 updated edition of The Limits to Growth

Here's a piece of conventional wisdom: chicken little is always wrong. The sky is never falling, and anyone who says otherwise can safely be dismissed as a crackpot. Cassandra's fellow Trojans called her a chicken little, when she said letting in that big wooden horse was a bad idea, because of what would happen after the equine monument was admitted inside the city walls.

Illustration of the conventional wisdom about chicken little: a book called The Limits to Growth, originally published in 1972. The book described the results of a social science research study sponsored by an international think tank called the Club of Rome. The book used systems dynamics models to examine long-term ecological consequences of a continuously expanding global economy. The authors concluded that economic growth would eventually cause a major economic and ecological collapse, for the simple reason that a finite stock of physical resources can't be drawn upon indefinitely.

The Limits to Growth drew immediate, furious denunciation by mainstream economists. Neoclassical economics -- in 1972 and today -- fails to incorporate the physical fact of finite resource quantities into its quantitative models. In essence, neoclassical economic models treat resource supplies as if the supplies were infinite. Economists, and therefore the overwhelming majority of policymakers,  conclude that resources are, in fact, literally infinite. For all practical purposes. The Limits to Growth tried to argue otherwise, and so mainstream attempts to discredit it were ferocious and sustained.

Italian academic Ugo Bardi, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Florence, has written a book (published by Springer) examining the campaign to debunk The Limits to Growth. In the 1970s and beyond, according to Bardi, attacks against the book often boiled down to a simple, clear, compelling argument. The attacks said the book had predicted that quantities of various raw materials would be completely exhausted by the 1980s or 90s -- including gold, mercury, tin, zinc, petroleum, copper, lead, and natural gas. Bardi's account of the attacks contends that The Limits to Growth actually made no such prediction. It simply used certain numbers in a very small segment of the book to illustrate certain technical aspects of number-crunching (having to do with exponential curves). Critics dishonestly took that one segment and deceitfully insisted that the Club of Rome study made predictions that in fact it never made.

Nevertheless, the belief that those predictions were in the book persists to this day, thanks to a sustained campaign of disinformation that created what amounts to an urban legend. According to the legend, The Limits to Growth made ludicrous predictions of imminent raw material depletion, and those predictions never happened. So we can safely consign the Club of Rome's research to the ash heap of history. Everything will be just fine.

Bardi insists that, in reality, The Limits to Growth offered a careful, nuanced study, predicting resource depletion and catastrophic over-pollution to set in sometime during the twenty first century, resulting in a drastic contraction of the world economy and the human population.

Bardi implies that this portrayal is, in fact, being vindicated by events taking place today. Consistent with forecasts of global resource depletion and hyper-polluion, we see climate change (carbon hyper-pollution) accelerating, mass extinction unfolding in the world's ecosystems, and key stocks of raw materials -- including petroleum -- showing early signs of possible strain. Not complete exhaustion, just evidence of an inability to meet market demands in an infinitely growing economy, which is a different  thing altogether.

Bardi has written a brief account of the debunking campaign against the Limits to Growth at

He doesn't offer much guidance, though, on how to convince policy-makers to pay attention. They didn't want to hear about limits to growth in 1972, and nothing has changed in the years since. How to deal with that willful ignorance remains the critical problem. How can we make social institutions based on something other than infinite economic growth a feasible subject for discussion in today's political environment?

For now, we can't. That may change as events continue to bear out the long-ago forecasts in The Limits to Growth.

But for that change to happen, someone will have to transmit a message like Cassandra's, and equally unwelcome. The horse is inside the walls already, and some of the citizens in the city have seen the threat emerging out into the streets, the enemy silently creeping into guard posts and slitting throats. Those who see have shouted warnings, but no one is listening. Or at least no one who matters all that much.

We have to figure out how to change that. How do you be honest about the what's happening, about the scale and horror of it, without causing the listener to shut down and withdraw?

Let us not speak falsely now, for the hour is getting late.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Those Enticing Alternatives...

I tend to avoid discussions of politics, climate change and other hot topics, especially with persons who are passionately tied to their beliefs rather than guided by science and reason. Occasionally, however, I find a rational thinker who is eager to engage in honest discourse, but who has been inundated with corrupted (or at least heavily skewed) data. I was recently sent this Wall Street Journal article by one such person, and I felt compelled to respond. My response will seem quite soft by the standards of this venue -- attenuated, perhaps, by the value I place on my relationship with the sender of the article -- but I thought I'd share it anyway, partly as a means of pushing myself back into some sort of blogging activity, and partly to have an opportunity to explore yesterday's rather off-the-cuff response more thoroughly through readers' comments.

Climate change happens regardless of human activities. In that human activities contribute to the acceleration of such changes to rates that outstrip our abilities to respond appropriately, I continue to believe that it is worth our while to make every effort possible to curb emissions of CO2, CFCs, and other greenhouse gases. Perhaps all such efforts will prove to have been in vain with regard to climate change (either because they were achieved too late or because their targets were insignificant compared to other factors), but in that they will have contributed to making the world a healthier place in which to live, they will not have been truly in vain. Combustion of coal, diesel, ship fuels, heating oils, biomass, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) gasoline, produces airborne pollutants that are probably contributing more to the global burden of cardiovascular disease than all the fatty foods and cigarettes ever consumed (note: global burden -- not individual risk), so if combustion of such pollutant sources is reduced for any reason, whether the reason is bogus or not, I'm all for it.

As for the article... exciting stuff, and probably (I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to particle physics) scientifically plausible (one of the key ingredients to establishing causality in the absence of randomized controlled trials, which are, unfortunately out of the question without access to a decent sized sample of Earth-type planets and a study period of at least several millenia). The response from the scientific community is neither appropriate nor surprising. Science is rarely allowed to proceed as it should -- in an unbiased vacuum -- and scientists rarely behave as they should. Science is typically funded by government entities or corporate powers and they both have their agendas. Even when the scientists are allowed to perform their investigations unhindered and report their findings without censorship, there is always a bias, in that only the scientists who have already declared an interest in a "fundable" field will get funding, while great minds and ideas that seek to explore alternatives are left to wither. As for the implications of this research, well I guess there's not much that can be done about cosmic rays, but there's not really much that can be done to prevent climate change at this point regardless of its cause(s). No matter what humans do, fail to do, or choose not to do, we're likely to see some dramatic climate change over the next several decades (at least), and it would behoove us to start directing efforts and resources towards preparations. The danger that I see in propagation of any theories of climate change that shift the burden of responsibility away from humans is that it is likely to result in widespread environmental irresponsibility. Perhaps it's not entirely honest to state with an air of absolute certainty that humans are solely responsible for global warming-induced climate change, but if enough people can be convinced of it, they may start forcing governments and corporations to take the welfare of the planet seriously and some of the environmental damage that has been wrought since the dawn of the industrial age might be allowed to slowly heal itself.

I'm all for discovery, development, technological progress, etc, but not in the irresponsible manner in which it's been conducted for the past couple of centuries. Of course much of what is now known about the adverse effects of industrialization and high energy consumption was not understood at the time that processes were set in motion, but now that we do have a good idea of what we've done, it's time to clean up our act... and to freely share technology and knowledge across the globe, allowing the developing world to leap-frog over the most destructive phases of development and join us in (what the most optimistic part of me hopes will soon be) a responsible and sustainable existence. So... if a little fear and guilt might possibly help spur progress towards a greener, cleaner, healthier world, with freer sharing of technology, information and resources, I guess I'm generally OK with the possibility that one of the many contributors to climate change might be receiving a little too much emphasis relative to the others. I don't like the idea of filtering or weighting information, but I'm not sure what other options there are. The information is far too complex, and all of it is surrounded by too much uncertainty to expect people to be able to digest it and rationally make decisions based on it. We're dealing with a population of scientifically and mathematically bereft individuals who aren't equipped to employ reason and logic, nor to deal with uncertainty, quantification of uncertainty and relative levels of uncertainty, so decisions end up coming down to who can make the biggest emotional impact on the greatest number of decision makers (voters, congresspersons, shareholders, etc). Climate change is but one of a host of disastrous problems affecting the globe (and perhaps the one about which we can do the least), but it's an easy one around which to rally... and if it can be used to get people to start thinking globally -- to start recognizing themselves as members of a global population rather than citizens of nations, adherents of religions, or employees of corporations -- then let it be the one that gets used.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Thinking outside the pump: in praise of a colleague's post

If you haven't read it, I strongly recommend reading Steve's recent post on wood gas generation. It illustrates some core themes that he and I have been trying to develop on this blog, and in our own work in the non-cyber venue known as real life.

Plus, Steve's post is just really strong on the "neat-o" factor. Before reading it, I had no idea what a "wood gas generator" was, or that you could use one to power an internal combustion engine.

To follow-up on his post, I just wanted to offer some visual images of the device Steve is talking about -- I'll get to that in a bit. First, though, some thoughts on visualization and the importance thereof.

After several years of part-time involvement in low-budget local film-making, I have a much stronger appreciation for the usefulness of visual images in making a point. Especially in matters of technology or science. Sometimes, when reading about an unfamiliar technical topic -- like, say, a wood gas generator -- it can be hard for me to wrap my brain around the tangible-ness and real-ness of the thing being described.

I mean, I know intellectually what's being talked about, but I grasp that knowledge in a kind of detached, abstract-ified way. In this case, though, it's very important to understand, viscerally and tangibly, that the device Steve is talking about isn't some sort of airy-fairy, hippie-dippie, impractical thing. It's a totally practical, working invention that's been around for over a hundred years -- and will be needed again very soon in the post-carbon era, along with many other forgotten practices and technologies. Understanding the  physical and technical practicality of these technologies is vital in preparing for our post-carbon future.

Of course, if you read Steve's piece on wood gas generation closely, you should understand what he's talking about just fine. But if it's hard for me, a true believer in the post-carbon cause, to wrap my head around post-carbon technologies, imagine what it's like for the befuddled mainstreamers who have yet to make the conceptual leap to post-carbon thinking. Based on my experience, I would guess that mainstream readers -- hopelessly trapped in the paradigm of corporate-controlled, centrally-run fuel delivery that Steve talks about -- might have at least a vague tendency toward dismissiveness.

It's amazing how often I talk to well-meaning, intelligent people who reflexively assume that anything outside the reality of their daily material life -- such as peak oil and the technological changes connected to it -- is somehow not "real." Hence the tendency to fall back on cliches and catch phrases to dismiss the subject instead of thinking seriously about it. Example: "We all know Malthus was wrong." Example: "Even if you're right that it really is that bad... (translation: you're an alarmist and thus I don't need to take you seriously)."

One of the best ways to counter this sort of dismissiveness is with concrete images. Seeing is believing.

So, lest a peak oil skeptic or a technocratic "business as usual" believer somehow not "get" such notions as a wood gas generator, suspecting that any such device is right up there with unicorns in terms of feasibility, images might help.

This is what a tractor powered by a wood-gas fueled internal combustion engine looks like.


See? It's real. Not like a unicorn at all.

The same is true of peak oil. It's a physical fact of nature. The only question is when it will happen. Mainstreamers choose not to do any in-depth reading on the mounting evidence that "when" = "very soon."

So our communities will very soon need ready-at-hand, off-the-shelf alternative ways of doing things. Like, say, wood gas generators. Here's a Saab in Finland converted to run on a wood gas generator:


Yes, it's not the most elegant-looking contraption. But it is the future. Sleek, Jetsons-style, fusion-powered hover cars are not.

Neither is the Prius, for that matter. Building a Prius depends on finite supplies of (a) rare earth materials for the batteries, (b) petroleum for the plastics components, and (c) metals for much of the rest. Building a Prius uses electricity and supply chains based on finite fossil fuels. So does transporting one to the dealership for sale. So does bringing the goddamn thing to the mechanic on a regular basis to keep it running; the mechanic relies on electricity and materials and supply chains all based on finite fossil fuels. The existence of the Prius is possible only because of energy supplies and materials that are depleting rapidly. And because of gigantic, centrally-administered economic systems (euphemistically called "markets") which are based on those very same disappearing materials and energy sources.

To begin creating the post-carbon technologies of our low-energy future, which will unfold in an utterly alien, superheated, extinction-ravaged biosphere, we have to stop visualizing that future the way Bill Gates and Barack Obama do. Our future will not look just like today's society only powered by gleaming solar panels and wind farms, plus some nuclear plants and (bullshit) clean coal stations.

Nope. The material culture of 2100 will look like the vehicles above. Kind of ungainly, patched together, and run locally -- not by giant, central distribution systems and "economies of scale," which were possible only (yes, only) because of super-cheap, easily exploited, energy-dense fossil fuels.

That was the underlying theme and premise of Steve's post. He was using the example of wood gas generation to show what a different paradigm for a society -- low-energy, low-tech, and decentralized -- might entail in hard, tangible terms of everyday life. This is the point of much of the writing he and I do on this blog. And also of the hectoring, cajoling and pleading we do with people we encounter in our meat-space, non-cyber lives.

So come to post-carbon Jesus already, m'kay? We now take you back to the apocalypse, already in progress.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Power your car on hope and termite farts.

I had a very interesting conversation this week with my blacksmithing instructor, who is one of those people who seems to know a little bit about everything, especially when it come to self-sufficiency. The conversation was about biofuels, and I actually came out of it a little less cynical than I went in, which is a remarkable anomaly for my intellectual adventures in peak oil! In my last post, I attacked the EPA mandate for renewable fuels, particularly ethanol production from corn. I noted that we could convert our entire food supply into biofuel and still not meet our demands. And I was right.

But after talking things over with my instructor, I'm beginning to think that bio-fuels isn't a completely bad idea, is bio-gasoline replacement that's a disaster waiting to happen. Note that every renewable fuels mandate that is getting any press and US Federal support is intended to do one thing: keep major oil companies selling us our fuel at fucking gas stations and making tons and tons of coin. That's it. Keep the Big Oil tit producing the sweet, sweet milk of corporate profits. All of it, the ethanol mandates, the subsidies, the hostility to efficiency requirements that would do the work of BILLIONS of gallons of overpriced moonshine, is intended to keep us shelling out a considerable part of our income to BP, Shell, and Exxon.

The fact that the resource->refinery->central distribution center->local gas station food chain is completely unworkable for anything except crude oil, with its gigantic supply in a handful of locations, doesn't matter, of course. The cardinal rule of mainstream renewable energy initiatives is this: thou shalt not market any technology that eliminates or reduces the amount of money consumers spend on electricity or transportation fuel. Too many fat cats depend on the rivers of money flowing into gas station cash registers and utility companies, fat cats with enough political influence to murder true, household-level energy independence programs in the cradle. So we see the square peg of renewable energy being desperately hammered into the round hole of existing distribution networks; massive wind farms being built and hooked into the Grid where a hundred times as many rooftop windmills that cost 1/10,000th as much could do the same job; massive fields of corn grown to brew ethanol which is then mixed wholesale into petroleum gasoline supplies (making E-5, E-10, and a range of other pseudo-renewable gas hybrid fuels), making it impossible to switch to biofuel entirely, or distribute it locally in a meaningful way. The bureaucrats charged with finding solutions to energy problems are operating in a political space where they must not disrupt or modify the way American consumers acquire the energy they use to power their homes and transportation needs, and under that constraint, truly renewable energy is impossible. You cannot apply systems designed to harvest and distribute the overwhelmingly concentrated energy of petroleum to the much different problem of collecting and conserving relatively diffuse renewable energy source. It's like using a grenade to mow your lawn.

The real renewable energy solution, of course, is a decentralized model of reduce, conserve, and produce. Home-scale technologies that were used for centuries, like wind- and water-mills, will be joined by other innovations, once of which I want to highlight today, not so much because I expect everyone to rush out and build wood-fired cars, but because realizing that such a thing is possible, and requires only that one walk away from the central-distribution model of energy production to become damned obvious, will help us all find solutions to our individual energy problems when the pumps finally, inevitably, run dry.

Wood gas generation: making your own fuel without competing with your own stomach!

Wood gas, or more accurately "producer gas," is a fuel gas produced through the heat-decomposition of organic matter. Basically, one builds a low, smoldering fire, that produces a lot of flammable gas, a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane. The smoldering fire does not efficiently burn this gas, the natural combustion of which forms the bright yellow and blue "tongues" of flame that roar above a well-built campfire and produce most of the light (though not most of the heat) of that fire. In a producer gas generator, this flammable gas is pulled off the fire and bubbled through a water column to remove tars and particulates (yes, this is precisely how a bong operates, in fact), and then routes the fuel into a gas turbine or even an internal combustion engine. Conventional gasoline engines can combust producer gas with the same level of modification required for a bio-diesel conversion, which is to say, something that can be done in your own garage for a few hundred dollars if you are fairly handy with tools. This is a solid, 19th-century technology that has been used in fuel shortages before, and is so reliable that FEMA has a design for an emergency producer-gas power station that can be built during a fuel crisis.

Producer gas is sustainable, in that it consumes fresh rather than fossilized organic matter, which also makes it carbon neutral as far as greenhouse gases go; the carbon dioxide produced by the engine was pulled out of the air by the plant whose tissues you're burning in the last ten years or so. Also, unlike the majority of bio-ethanol production schemes, the feed stock for producer gas is not something that can be eaten by humans or domestic animals: wood scraps. These scrap materials are available in great abundance and at low cost, and while there is talk of using them as feedstocks to produce bio-ethanol ("cellulosic bio-ethanol," named after cellulose, the indigestible carbon compound that makes up the majority of wood), such technology is not well-developed and is likely to be less efficient, overall, than gassification of the same scraps. Also unlike the Pay-at-the-pump ethanol scheme, producer-gas rigs are extremely easy to build and fuel at the local level; while building one in their own garages may be beyond a lot folks, it is certainly an industry that any competent small-town auto shop could make into a business model with relatively little fuss. The technology is old enough to be public domain, so Exxon-Mobil isn't going to come along and buy the patent so they can sit on it.

I'm not going to suggest that producer-gas cars are going to solve our transportation problems, far from it; reducing our dependence on motorized transport is a given. In fact, the main point of this post is to point out how truly dubious any solution that includes the concept "business as usual" really is; anybody claiming to be able to "solve" peak oil or climate change at no inconvenience to you is stupid or lying, straight up. Building a town-scale producer gas plant would be a dirty pain in the ass, and would never yield anywhere close to the abundant and easy fuel we have today. But it is an example of the sort of innovative techniques that we as households and communities can apply to dealing with that inevitable down-shift; it doesn't have to be dark ages and wallowing in filth, folks. Just think outside the pump.

Monday, August 29, 2011

American Journal of Public Health special issue on peak oil

I posted the following today at an online discussion forum for public health students at the University of New Mexico. I wanted to alert them that the premier academic journal in the public health field just published an issue examining the impact of peak oil. Because I know several of the public health students (having worked until recently in their building) and I like hanging out with them, and I can't resist proselytizing to people I like.

This time, though, I kept to a more restrained tone than the one I'm apt to use in this here little blog venue, wherein I occasionally dispense brimstone and rivers of apocalyptic flame.

Still, it's nice to see at least one professional academic journal hasn't written off peak oil as a Malthusian-oid delusion.

* * * * *

"Peak oil?" What's that?

Check out the latest issue of the American Journal of Public Health; you can find a brief capsule summary with links to the issue itself at a very cool website (for us wonks of energy and environmental policy) called Energy Bulletin.

The AJPH issue has eight articles exploring various aspects of peak oil, which has garnered relatively little attention among public health practitioners and researchers to date. But it's becoming quite an issue in some segments of the public policy and business communities around the world, most especially (perhaps ominously) in the military leadership of the United States and allied nations.

"Peak oil" refers to the geologically inevitable point at which global oil production reaches its maximum possible rate and then enters permanent, terminal decline. Until recently, geologists and economists thought the peak was decades or centuries away. Now, a growing body of evidence suggests it's happening today. If it is, that might help account for the economic turmoil engulfing the world over the last few years.

Why does this matter? Because, simply put, oil is the lifeblood of modern economies, and everything that happens in them. It is critical not only for transportation fuel but for food production and for a variety of materials and chemicals used in a huge range of manufactured goods, from electronic devices to pharmaceuticals. If global oil production declines, even slightly, the result will be gigantic price spikes in virtually every service and product in human societies -- because all of them depend on cheap oil for manufacturing and delivery systems.

The potential impacts of peak oil on health are dramatic. Hospitals, for example, will be hard pressed, in a permanent oil shortage, to resupply themselves. Food prices will surge along with production and transportation costs. Meaning nutritional needs for multitudes of people will be much harder to meet. Meanwhile, the economic growth that provides tax revenue for public health services will be crippled (more so than it is already).

Ultimately, that's the biggest potential health impact of peak oil. Unless alternative materials and energy systems are available to replace oil (as of today they are not), economic resources for vital public services will simply go away. Those services have been based for over a century on the assumption of permanent economic growth, but our societies now face the prospect of a permanent end to that growth and a new era of long-term economic contraction. Consequently, the advances in medicine and public health of the industrial age will be cut off from their supply lines when and if the global oil production decline begins.

Right now, our health systems aren't prepared for that at all.There is no replacement on the horizon, or conceivable set of replacements, for the energy and materials made possible by cheap oil. Alternative energy and conservation measures have been tried on a small scale, but they aren't ready -- yet -- for global deployment.

One important dimension of public health practice in the coming decades will entail doing something to change that.

For more on peak oil, you can check out this useful primer. Or, if video is more your style, check out this documentary, "The End of Suburbia." It was made a few years ago, but it played a key role in getting the concept of peak oil into the political and cultural discourse.

And, finally, because topics like this can induce paralyzing despair, I highly recommend the Transition Network for an optimistic look at peak oil as an opportunity for far-reaching social transformation.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Renewable Bullshit

I've been largely incognito around here the last couple of months, and a large part of that has been preparing for the 96th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. It's a big conference, and I was presenting some of my work, so, stress.

But now I'm just back from Austin, TX, where it's more than a hundred degrees outside and, despite Governor Rick Perry's best efforts less than five miles from the world's largest gathering of ecologists, it hasn't rained since late last year.

There is, of course, no scientific explanation for this. Weather's just WEIRD, right?

Anywho. I followed the contributed sections on Sustainability and Climate Change with keen interest this year. I have enough stuff to unpack, I suspect, into several columns. To begin, I encountered a fine example of the myth of miraculous tenchology in the Sustainability section, an incredible example of scientific optimism slamming headlong into impossible realities. I hate to pile on to the speaker, a graduate student at Stanford and thus someone facing the same sort of institutional beating I receive on a daily basis, but the truth is she was laying an impossible line of bullshit on us, and from her prevarication and damn near flinching at some of the worse factoids, she knew it.

The topic was biofuels. Well, "renewable" fuels, but until the figure out how to turn electricity directly into sweet, sweet petrol, we're talking biofuels. Specifically, the talk was touted in the abstract handout as discussing the prospects for biofuels development in the southwestern desert of the United States. I shit you not.

First, consider that at present, 24% of the United States' annual corn crop is converted into bioethanol, around 13.5 billion gallons, or around 8% of fuel requirements.* That, right there, should be enough to indicate that conservation and decreases in consumption, not biofuel, is the necessary response to peak oil; we could convert all of the corn in the country into ethanol and not come close to meeting fuel demand. Alas, the only kind of austerity federal authorities are willing to discuss is the kind that fucks poor people, so I give you the EPA's Renewable Fuel Standard. It's pretty dense, but back in 2005 the EPA passed a regulation requiring that just under 13 billion gallons of bioethanol be produced in 2010. They met this benchmark, though a combination of gigantic subsidies and tax giveaways to producers, and in the process caused convulsive food price fluctuations on the world market that helped spark some minor unpleasantness in the Middle East earlier this year. So the EPA is doubling down, requiring 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel per annum by 2022. An increase of nearly 300% in ten years. Hoo boy.

The speaker acknowledged at this point that there was no way that we could meet this benchmark using current feedstocks and technologies; that we could starve the world and not have enough to fuel our cars. She also quickly glossed over the fact that most feedstocks are not as greenhouse-gas neutral as the EPA likes to pretend, as they ignore the agricultural gas fluxes entirely in their calculations (natch). At this point a reasonable scientist would point out that our current fuel consumption is unsustainable and must be reduced, but instead she gamely suggested that maybe we could make the southwestern U.S., which is not at present what one would call a breakbasket, into a biofuels geyser.

Things got awfully hand-wavey at this point. The speaker conceded that the only thing stopping the southwest from producing great heaping gobs of biofuels feedstocks, with its abundant space and sunlight, is lack of water. I literally had to restrain myself from shouting that that was also why they don't grow much FOOD down there either, incidentally. Even so, something like 75% of water use in the southwest goes to agriculture, and 50% of that goes to grow hay for the cattle industry (you're eating part of the Colorado River that never made it to the ocean whenever you cruise through the drive-through). The speaker also admitted that the aquifers and surface waters of the region are, to avoid putting too fine a point on it, fucked, which I thought would be an excellent point to realize that establishing a brand-new, water-intensive industry in the region would be a Bad Idea(tm). She then outlined a very ambitious plan to build gigantic algae farms in the area, utilizing CO2 produced by coal-fired power plants as a carbon source (clever, actually), and diverting water from the already unsustainable production of hay.

So, let's build a few billion dollars worth of entirely new infrastructure, cut the region's production of cattle by about 7.5 million head per year* (I thought the point was NOT to fuck with food prices?), and continue destroying a regional water table, and she reckons we can ALMOST reach half of the EPA's required benchmark, just in time for kids born today to start middle school.

Sure. Why not.

This talk was a perfect example of what is afflicting mainstream environmental science today. The speaker was not unaware of any of the major issues regarding biofuels production: competition with food production, net positive greenhouse gas fluxes from production, insufficient water supplies, unproven technologies, etc. etc. etc. From her manner, she knew just how unrealistic the EPA's mandate seems, doubling down on a policy that has already destabilized the market for one of the country's key agricultural products. The true solution, reducing consumption, was sitting there like an elephant in the room. But instead of counseling this course of action, she spun a bizarrely optimistic tale of miracle technology, blithely talking about obliterating America's beef production on one hand, while creating and fusing at least a half-a-dozen different industrial technologies on the other, in less time than it takes to age a middle-shelf scotch.

As long as scientists in this country refuse to abandon the fallacy that technology, divorced from the near unlimited energy of the petroleum age, can save us from anything, we have no chance of convincing policy makers and the public that energy austerity is out only choice. It's incredibly ironic to me that we have had such a huge national debate over the debt ceiling recently, when the world's energy budget is the one budget that really CANNOT allow deficit spending.

More from the world's premier gathering of ecologists later. I need a drink.

*figures quoted from Amelia Wolf's talk, "Biofuel Production Potential in the Southwestern U.S."

Friday, August 12, 2011

Mentat's book corner

Okay, my first blogpost in many many thousands of moons. This brief post started life as a message over facebook between Ed, Micaiah (Ilorien) and myself. I was just asking Micaiah what he's been reading and gave the following recommendations. Ed said I should post it to the blog. Since these are simply pithy comments and not in depth reviews, that hadn't occurred to me. But...let's face it, I don't know how often I'll make myself write lengthy reviews. But I can see myself giving capsule summaries, and maybe from time to time more expanded capsule summaries. So, as an ice-breaker, here's the stuff on books in the message I sent. I'll do another post later today or over the weekend doing the same sort of thing for some more fiction I've read recently, and the recent non-fiction books too.

On other fronts, are you reading anything cool recently? Things I've read in the last couple of months I think you might be interested in are:

The Takeshi Kovacs trilogy by Richard K. Morgan (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies) -- Noir SF. Think Philip K. Dick meets Raymond Chandler and they spawn a post-human infomorph love child.

First three novels of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novick (His Majesty's Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War). The Napoleonic wars with talking dragons thrown in. Sounds goofy. But it works.

Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. I'm rereading the first 4 before reading the 5th which just came out this summer. Fantasy set in a medieval-type world. But the theme is not good vs. evil, but power--what people do to get it and keep it. No young boy on a quest to get/save/destroy a McGuffin. No dark lord. The HBO series Game of Thrones is the first book in the trilogy brought to the screen.

For more lit'ree and less genre type fiction I recently read a play by Cormac McCarthy, The Sunset Limited about an existential conversation between a nihilist suicidal professor and a devout ex con black man who intervenes when the professor tries to throw himself in front of a train. Also, Emma Donaghue's novel, Room, about a woman kept in a shed for years where she gives birth to and raises a son.

I read more non-fiction than fiction, but you said you preferred to read novels, so I thought I'd pass those recommendations along. Oh, two last interesting tidbits: two memoirs written in graphic novel form. Very different: the first, Blankets by Craig Thompson, about his harsh fundamentalist upbringing and how he grows up to escape its horrid influence and find love. The second, Paying For It, by Chester Brown about Brown's experiences over a decade regularly paying prostitutes for sex in Toronto, where I gather it's legal if certain forms are observed.

I've read other things, but those are the things that struck me as things you might like.

Now you!