Thursday, January 31, 2008

Be Careful What You Ask For…

…you might get it, as the saying goes. There is much discussion these days about the impending collapse of civilization, along with ample evidence to support this inevitability and legions of well engineered and self evident suggestions guaranteed to avert or mitigate said disaster. I have read many articles and seen several documentaries which say something to the effect, ‘If people were made to understand X, then they would surely do Y.’ X is allowed to be any of a set of a priori assumptions about the universe, such as ‘This or that technology will save us’, ‘The moon is a sponge of green cheese saturated with Helium-3’ or the equally ludicrous ‘Oil enters the earth’s crust through a white hole connected via pipeline to a black hole in an alternately fueled universe entirely composed of hydrocarbons.’

Conversely, other candidates for argument X include, ‘We are all doomed, anyway’, ‘The cheap energy carnival is caput’ and the ever popular ‘It’s all a hoax propagated upon us by THEM.’ (Being interested in anthropology, I would definitely like to know more about those THEM. Maybe an ethnography of the Bilderberg Group would make a good read. What sorts of islands do they prefer for their post apocalyptic slave labor camps? How many cases of Russian caviar must each bomb shelter contain? Where do I send my request for membership? But I digress.)

The Y portion of the equation is populated with ideas guaranteed to fix the problem. Things like, ‘Laminate Arizona with solar panels’, ‘Grow legumes in that spot in your back yard where you used to change the oil in your riding mower’, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die off’ and ‘Just keep drilling until the drill bit melts.’ Dick Cheney’s favorite, I might add. Personally I prefer, ‘Take a stick of petroleum wax and apply directly to the forehead.’ Why not? It works just as well for headaches.

The problem is that people are notoriously reticent to change their opinions, let alone their behavior, when someone pretending to know more than they do tells them how to behave. Like the old saying goes, People who think they know it all really make life miserable for those of us who do. Jimmy Carter couldn’t even get the conversation going thirty years ago, let alone outline his own plan Y, and that was when the memory of gas lines was still fresh in our minds. Arguments like those outlined above (admittedly presented in a Mad Libs format) have more to do with social engineering than any other kind of engineering. The jist of these arguments seems to be, ‘If everyone just does what I say, everything will be fine.’ This line of reasoning is always flawless to the reasoner, if nobody else.

Let us consider a thought experiment. Suppose that you had in your possession the absolute best plan for the post oil future of mankind. Your muse, higher power or perhaps a fortune cookie laid it out for you in blinding alacrity. You cannot convince anyone to espouse your wonderful plan because, well, because people are not hotwired that way (see above.) Now, for the sake of the thought experiment let us further suppose that you are the supreme ruler of the world (why not? If talk is cheap, than surely thought must be nearly worthless.) You are either a philosopher king with absolute authority and power as well as a perfect, selfless and incorruptible grasp of what is right and wrong or a member of a beneficent and like minded oligarchy. More on that later.

So you create your five year plan-oops, I mean absolute best plan for humanity, and implement it. To do this you have to just plain force people to do what you know is right, gosh darn it. You organize work camps-no, that’s not right. Living camps-no, that’s not right, either. I know. Fun camps where people can live while laminating Arizona or blasting off to the moon to mine magic beans or whatever. Other segments of the population are busy growing food on the strips of land between the rail road tracks of the mass transit systems that they are also building from the left over corn stalks.

If there are too many people for all of the available farm land, minus that used for bio diesel, well, you are the king of the world. You can enforce population control (that sounds better than the more fascist ‘depopulation’) via some sort of technique that you are rather nebulous about and don’t really want to discuss. A smaller human footprint with fewer useless eaters (got to get a better phrase for that one. Maybe later) will benefit mankind in the long run. It will be like culling the herds. Some of our grandchildren will live in a technological world with mass transit and Disney World, only not as many. You are willing to make this sacrifice even though the world will despise you and place your name at the head of all lists of tyrants. What else can you do? You are insuring that there will be a (smaller) human population in the future to hate you.

I think you can see from this thought experiment that the one thing that might stand a chance of actually insuring a bright future for the earth and for some members of the human race, as opposed to obliteration for all, is the very thing that we fear the most. Big Brother, through some shadowy secret society, creating a New World Order for a privileged elite, whereas the rest of humanity (the superfluous part) is culled from the herd or placed into labor camps. Come to think of it, if one super rich person consumes as much resources as one thousand of the poorest, wouldn’t we get more bang for the buck were we to ‘depopulate’ that one person? Better not go there. I’m sure Henry Kissinger would not be impressed by this analysis.

Of course, I don’t want to see this happen, nor do I believe that it will actually happen. Even if it might work and even if it would be less cruel than what is actually going to happen, you will never get a secretive group of social engineers, no matter how shadowy, to go along with it. Not because it is too horrible, we are talking about mass euthanasia, after all, but because of the ‘If X, then Y’ dilemma above. You just can’t get a group of people working together toward some single goal, no matter how important, unless you are the king of the universe. Herding cats comes to mind. Not to mention the fact that this is far beyond anything that Alexander the Great attempted in his Hellenization of the mid east. Even Sargon II did not engage in what we today call ‘ethnic cleansing.’ He only relocated the population in an attempt to control them.

I personally don’t believe that there is any sort of secret society ruling the world, not because someone might not wish for this to happen or even attempt to make it happen, but because he will never get that many people to agree to any single master plan. Philosopher kings are in short supply, you know. Philosopher kings with standing armies even less so. Just look into any town zoning board meeting. Your belief in secret societies ruling the world will collapse faster than western hegemony. Though it does make for a good conspiracy theory.

Since making a concerted effort to decrease the surplus population (Dickens’ reference intentional) and to conserve is too hideous to contemplate, then that leaves collapse. Nature will do all that for us, in other words. She can be the bitch that killed off most of the population. She’s done it before and doesn’t appear to mind.

So what might that entail? At the risk of sounding like our last legitimately elected president, it all depends on what the definition of the word ‘collapse’ is. Unless something catastrophic happens I expect to see the United States continue to weaken, just like it has since the 70’s, and then simply crack up. What has been called ‘the Balkanization of the United States.’ Until that time, there will undoubtedly be a patchwork of government run soup kitchens, under bridge condos, clever tax rebates and Bush bergs sprouting up everywhere, complete with moon shine stills, a booming sex trade and pot patches strangely ignored by the local strongmen. You’d be amazed at what you might come across in national forests. Just watch out for the booby traps.

The media will tell those of us with radios and TV’s how well things are going, and they will be true. Some segments of the economy will be functioning, albeit at an increasingly smaller and smaller pace all the time. The rich will stay just ahead of the oil supply. The poor will be ignored, as usual. At least they are not being ‘culled.’ Or, if you notice them at all, you will assume that this is just a problem in your area. After all, everywhere else is doing better, right? They will tell you this right up to the point where static is all you pick up on the air waves. The haves will continue to have and the rest of us will continue to not count. Depopulation will occur right before our eyes and we will never see it. David Copperfield does social engineering. Collapse, in short, will be banal. How can I be so sure? Because it is happening right now.

I often hear people compare the decline of this empire to the fall of the Roman Empire. What they miss is that Rome didn’t really ‘fall’ in any sense of the word. At least not during the fifth or sixth centuries, when it is usually considered to have done so. Rome was downsized when the emperor Constantine wrote off the western empire in the forth century, with all of its red ink, pesky barbarians and high military expenses, and created a new city in the eastern empire (which he modestly named after himself, by the way. It is good to be emperor, philosopher king or otherwise.) The eastern, Byzantine Empire went on strong for another thousand years. The western empire just did not have the good graces to realize that it was doomed for a few more centuries. I think a similar trend will occur here with wealthier areas consolidating and disavowing any knowledge of poorer ones. This will give the illusion that everything is OK in that empire while the rest of the world falls apart. If I don’t see you, then you are not there.

I expect to see California secede from the union at some time in the future, probably merging with Mexico. It is something like the nineteenth largest economy in the world and has its own supply of oil, food and movie stars. Once it realizes that the federal government has no more Jedi mind tricks with which to control it, California will flip a dismissive avocado in our direction and go it alone. My native Connecticut will rejoin a northeastern block from perhaps Philadelphia to southern Maine. The southern states never really accepted defeat, so any appearance of political kinship between them and the rest of the country over the last one and a half centuries was merely cosmetic, anyway. And the remainder of North America? Well, go ahead and rebel amongst yourselves, will you? Just keep away from my pot plants. Instead of going backwards, as some people suggest, I expect civilization to simply shed what it can no longer sustain as rapidly as Greenland sheds icebergs.

Every year I go to the local agricultural fairs in eastern Connecticut and muster up some hope that at least some people out there will actually know what to do with seeds, tools and livestock. Those people are called ‘farmers.’ Those of us who talk about permaculture and backyard farming obviously have never gotten manure on our shoes. I look at the fairground stalls (you have to go past the midway) and marvel at the people who keep alive the small farm, raise rabbits, can vegetables and show horses right here in snooty, urbane Connecticut. How well will they survive in the post peak compost heap? I wish them well and hope they remember us kindly.

And Me? I have a little square of land in my back yard where I used to change the oil in my riding mower. I fill it with weeds and a few cucumbers each summer. They make good pickles. Being not much use in the sex trade I have already checked out my Fodor’s guide for the homeless and staked out my place under the bridge.

Say, while we are on the subject of social engineering, how many anthropologists does it take to change a light bulb? Why, none, of course. We just study the light bulb tribes objectively in the interest of scientific inquiry, without intervention. If we did get involved, though, we’d need a linguist to translate their language, an ethnographer to record their oral traditions, a medical anthropologist to, you know, ‘discuss health issues’ with them and several hundred grad students to keep notes. Oh, and don’t forget the social workers (and soldiers) to assist in their ‘relocation’ when oil is discovered under Lightbulbia.

Creative Living Arrangements

There is a lot of talk these days about making different arrangements as the economy continues to decline, and even accelerate, over the next several years and decades. Dick Cheney assures us that the American way of life is ‘non-negotiable.’ I guess that means that we can just sit back and watch it drain away, grain by grain, like some thermodynamic hour glass. Since we can no longer negotiate the steady passage of time and entropy (when could we ever?) we must ‘make other arrangements.’

What might those other arrangements be? Some people have suggested that the twentieth century will run in reverse as each of the more expensive components of our lives becomes prohibitively expensive. First, air travel goes away, followed by no longer cheap gadgets, then fast cars, fast food, all but rudimentary health care until we are left driving our Ramblers home from our second jobs just in time to catch The Honeymooners on our black and white TVs. It will be the Big Crunch following the twentieth century’s consumerist Big Bang, only not chronicled as such by any social or political commentators. Our spacious living arrangements will collapse and grow closer and closer to those around us until we are forced to rely on our neighbors and family members to survive.

But why did we build suburbia in the first place? Because we can’t stand living near other people. That’s right. We are anti social. Or at least anti large society. Forget communes. Forget bands of Pilgrims clinging to their bibles and sea tossed boats while searching for the New Jerusalem. Forget Shangri-La, El Dorado, Teaming Masses, Workers’ Paradises, Peoples’ Republics, Noble Savages and Enlightened Self Interested People (sorry. I haven’t gotten a clever sounding title for those yet.)

Forget permaculture communities (back in the old days these were called ‘towns.’) Forget George Bailey and his “…your money is in Bill’s house, and your money is in Fred’s house…” We’re all just happy neighbors paying each others’ bank account interest with our safe and secure fixed rate mortgages, while building a better world for our children, right? Not on your life.

People have a really hard time living close to other people. And not just Americans, either. It was true in the very old days when our ancestors first experimented with agricultural communities. They had to psychologically deal with such abrasive problems as division of labor, crowded living conditions, sod busters vs. ranchers, fair market values for bartered commodities, inequalities between rich and poor, and “Hey, who moved my boundary stone?” types of complaints, etc. And in all of this mischief, people were in closer proximity that they were accustomed. Much closer.

Your average hunter gatherer living in his Edenic community had a population density of about one person per square mile. This does not mean that he was five thousand two hundred eighty feet away from his closest neighbor, of course, but it does mean that there were a lot fewer people rattling around in his social zone. With farming communities and villages, that number got a lot bigger. Hunter gatherers are not as bucolic as some might think. They are as violent as anybody else (more, actually) but their population is sparser and so the opportunities for friction fewer, though sometimes dramatic when they do occur. As they are compressed together into villages of farmers, herders and tradesmen, pressures build up generating a lot of heat. Conflicts are unavoidable. Skills to deal with them are non existent.

Early people dealt with these problems with rules, religions and God dispensed legal codes. From the Code of Hammurabi to your local zoning board, legal systems have evolved to force people to do what they can’t do naturally: get along. Just do what you are told and you can be a nice villager. We will even give you some wheat, no?

For the past hundred years or so, prosperous human populations have been expanding, each person growing farther and farther away from every other person in his universe like galaxies stretched on a rubber sheet. Maybe we are subconsciously trying to regain that ‘one person per square mile’ perfect proportion. Our gadgets and technology should be able to give us the benefits of civilization and the psychological distance of primitives. I’ll stay in my cave, you stay in yours, and we’ll just text each other. Why, it’s the best of both worlds! Nice work if you can get it.

I always loved the Carrousel of Progress in the 1965 New York World’s Fair, now permanently housed at Disneyland (Walt Disney World in Orlando has one, too.) You may remember it. There is a central circular theatre with fixed stages and seats arranged in a mobile ring around the central theatre. The audience sees a five minute show and then the auditorium portion revolves to the next theatre, taking the audience with it.

Each little show captures a slice of American rural life in the twentieth century. In the earlier ones, life is depicted in small communities where family members are making their own costumes for local masquerade and Halloween parties and the father talks about going down to the drug store for a sarsaparilla. Later, with the introduction of electric appliances and ‘the rat race’, local activities seem to just drop away, making the earlier ones look quaint. The end depicts a modern world, mostly centered on video games and gadgets, with little reference to an outside world at all. Except, of course, that it contains ‘a great big beautiful tomorrow…’

So what exactly will happen if we spin our carrousel backwards? We will find that, like horses, progress does not like to go into reverse. We cannot shrink our houses or our mortgages. We cannot easily move back to mill towns and cities and rebuild trolleys and put up theatres, diners and five and dimes in the center square. When I was a child my mother would bring me to doctors in the eastern Connecticut city where we lived. They had their practices (and also lived, for all I knew) in the upstairs offices above businesses in the center of town. We actually lived slightly outside of the city by that time, but most of the activity was still down town. It really was like Bedford Falls.

As the carrousel goes in reverse, I expect soon we will see more and more adult children moving back in with their parents. This happens already. A friend of mine had to allow her daughter, son-in-law and two children to move back in with them so they would not loose their house. Imagine that for a living arrangement? They went from three people to seven over night. I expect this to get a lot more common.

Do you have borders? No? How about empty rooms in your house? That McMansion is mostly empty. You could easily take someone in on a weekly or monthly basis. Of course, you should know something about the person you are renting a room to. So now you will have to know more about your community and you neighbors. You will need to develop a network of trust and a source of information. “So-and-so needs to rent a room? Is he trustworthy? Oh, a cousin of yours, huh? Is he willing to do some work around the house? No? Well, the room will cost more, then. Just don’t move my boundary stone.”

We will have to learn what it means to be in a community. Grudgingly, of course, since we built suburbia to get away from community in the first place. Maybe we are in the new age of community re-evolution, like those early Holocene hunter gatherers trying to figure out how to live in villages without killing each other. Well, they did it, why can’t we? We just need to get out of our caves, abandon our lifeless iPods and say hello to our neighbors. Oh, and whip up a nice divine Code of Conduct, while you’re at it.

Who knows? We may even start making our own Halloween costumes again.

Chronicles of a Baby Boomer - Part 1

I admit it. I am a product of the baby boom. Not quite a boom myself, being more of an acoustic anomaly off to one side. At least I was making a noise. I was born in the nineteen fifties, which puts me pretty much in the middle of that noisy clutch of booming babies. I don’t quite remember Howdy Doody, but I do remember the Kennedy assassination and the original run of Star Trek. And, of course, I saw the Beatles’ first performance on the Ed Sullivan show. Didn’t everybody?

Not only that, but we were suburbanites. I grew up in the state of Connecticut. For you in the bio fuel ready Midwest, we are one of those little states on the east coast. You know, the ones that look like pixilated bad guys in news videos? Not quite as small as Rhode Island, which is normally used as a cartographical unit of measure (as in, “That iceberg is the size of Rhode Island.”, or “An asteroid the size of Rhode Island (in 3-D, presumably) struck France last week.”) but not as big as Massachusetts, either. Connecticut is comfortably known for very little in the popular vernacular. Where I live is known for even less.

I live in the eastern half of the state, affectionately known as ‘The Other Connecticut.’ ‘Other’ as in, ‘Not the one where Paul Neumann and Mia Farrow live.’ That half of the state, the rich half, is pretty much the cork screw on the Swiss Army Knife which is New England. Our purpose in the Appalachia of the northeast is to serve as a counterweight, I suppose. Or a first line of defense should Rhode Island, with their cartographical superiority, decide to invade. We would absorb the blows while ‘The Primary Connecticut’ was annexed by New York. At least we would not have to put tomatoes in our clam chowder.

A lot is said about what baby boomers do and don’t do and what we are and aren’t. How unlike the previous and the current generations we are, for good or ill, how selfish or iconoclastic we are, etc, etc. Personally, I don’t think we baby boomers are any different than anybody else. A little less mercury in our environment growing up, perhaps, and a little more mercurial in personality, but then again we still had lead in the gasoline, so the assault on our neurotransmitters was just as robust. And anyway, with all of the random geology found in Connecticut, I think the water was naturally effervescent with radon gas. It is great with scotch. All in all, we were just brought up in an environment where the expectations were different than they are today, that’s all.

My father was a WWII vet. He joined the navy during the depression because, what else is a farm boy from Kansas to do when the farm belongs to the bank now? My mother worked in NYC during the same time, getting “Fifteen dollars a week, and that was good money!” as she told us later. During the war my aunt worked on a rationing board, and you couldn’t get an extra stick of butter out of her, no matter how much flattery you applied to the problem. My mother went to work for a defense contractor for the war effort. Though she did not get a chance to sling any hot rivets around, she did work in the office. Rosie the Filer. They also serve who stand and clerk.

We all have/had certain expectations in our lives. We in the post Sputnik era grew up with different expectations. I remember the 1965 World’s Fair in New York. I did not recognize it for the post modern, post art deco circus that it was. I actually believed all of the propaganda about houses of the future and talking Mr. Lincoln. And I’m still waiting for my flying car and electricity too cheap to meter. Our children are growing up with even different expectations, mostly to do with computerized gadgets that will save or rule the world, I can’t remember which. Maybe both. Who will be more disappointed, I wonder? Well, the computers won’t be disappointed, that’s for sure.

My mother’s parents owned a farm out in the country. ‘Country’ defined by Connecticut standards, that is. So it was small and had some vegetable gardens, dairy cows, pigs, chickens and used to have horses at one time in its past. No longer self sufficient, in other words. They were already retired when I came on the scene, having gained consciousness some time in the sixties, but they still retained some of the old routines out of habit, I suppose. These were a few quaint things that came with them from the Old Country and didn’t quite catch on here. What may be of interest to the Peak Oil brigade is that they, even back then, already grew their own bio fuel. Yes they did. It grew right out of the ground without the need of natural gas based fertilizers or diesel powered irrigation booms like those crop circles you see out in the Midwest. It just grew right out of the ground all by itself.

Two or three times during the summer, we would help my grandfather in the processing and storing of this miracle bio fuel. (By the way, when I refer to myself as ‘helping’, by that I mean running around with my other younger cousins trying not to get run over by a truck or chopped into silage by the sickle bar on the tractor. And yes, we used some fossil fueled vehicles for harvesting and transportation, but surely that was mitigated by the enormous quantities of bio fuel gathered in the process.)

We would gather the hay, I mean bio fuel, and load it onto a big flat bed truck. We would then drive it to the barn which was set into the side of a hill not too far from the farmhouse. Barns were always set into the sides of hills, the reason for which will become obvious to anybody who has stood on the down hill side of a cow. Someone would back the truck into the barn between the enormous lofts on either side. Then my grandfather would climb up onto the mound of hay, I mean bio fuel, and set this huge metal fork deep into it.

We used to call it the Devil’s fork and only my grandfather was allowed to work it. He would set it into the hay, I mean-Oh, never mind. He had to open the fork with both arms stretched out fully like Batman about to plunge over Gotham City. Instead, he just plunged the tines of the fork deep into the hay. He signaled a group of men by the entrance to the barn. A length of rope followed a complicated path from one side of the loft to the ceiling down to the fork then back up to the ceiling and over somewhere else. Eventually, it came down from the very top of the barn and went through a pulley set in the floor by the entrance. Rupp Goldberg would be bewildered.

I always found this amusing. Here was an old wooden pulley on the ground with a rope going through it extending all the way up to the ceiling of the barn and disappearing into one of the lofts. The free end of the rope was tied to a tractor, or sometimes even a car, which was driven slowly away from the barn, gently lifting the Devil’s fork along with its wad of hay up to the very apex of the roof. Some times the hay would all fall out and the forks would swing together, empty and dangerous. Those tines could pierce your head and meet in the middle, should your head get in the way. In the case of fork failure, my grandfather would shout down and have the car back up and start over again, resetting the fork into the jumble of hay. He was skilled enough so that, more often than not, he managed to get a thick misshapen lump of hay firmly set in the tines of the fork.

When it reached the top of the barn he would signal to the four men standing at the entrance of the barn by that hysterical pulley in the floor. They would pick up the rope and pull as quickly as they could, four men frantically pulling for all their might. This caused the Devil’s fork, which was already at the apex of the roof, to catch a trolley hanging in a rail, unlock it and fly left or right along the ridge of the roof, depending on how it had been set up. The fork brought the hay all the way to the edge of one of the hay lofts. My grandfather, who was holding a thin piece of clothesline, gave it a tug. It went all the way up to the roof and over to the fork, releasing it and dumping the hay into the loft.

A couple of good harvests and the help of sons in law and grandchildren and the barn was full. Hay was all they stored by the sixties. They used to keep a higher quality bio fuel in a storage tank called a ‘silo’, but the hurricane of 1938 turned that into wood planks, which were then used to build a porch around the house. Anyway, they didn’t need nearly as much home grown silage or fodder by then. You could just buy it, you know.

The hay was used as fodder for the three or four cows they still kept into the nineteen sixties. By then my grandparents were in their eighties so they were slowing down quite a bit. It’s bound to happen to the best of them. You try living into your late eighties and working hard the whole time. I’d rather not, thank you.

Looking at it this way puts some things into perspective. If it takes this much work and this much land to produce enough vegetative matter to keep a few cows going for a year (and cows don’t exactly have to run an Indy 500), then how much would be needed to power a horse? A horse conveniently produces one horse power of work, so the math is easy. Scale that up to your several hundred horsepower suburban tractor and I think you will agree that a tremendous amount to vegetation equivalent is required. At this point you may be tempted to say, “Oh, but we’ll use oily things like rape seeds and sunflower seeds and leftover grease from Elvis impersonators’ hair. This all has much more energy than hay. Much!” I would point out that oil contains slightly more than twice the energy of an equal weight of carbohydrate. This means that, instead of keeping four cows, we could have kept nine, assuming they could eat nothing by Brylcreem. I’m not exactly sure how many horse power we could count on, though. As a unit of comparison it serves to show just how much work you can expect to get out of a certain amount of roughage. There’s that concept again: expectations.

I don’t know what went first, the chickens, the cows or the pigs, but eventually they got rid of all of them. No more staying with the grandparents over a few days, getting up early with my grandfather and watching him feed and milk the cows at five in the morning. No more removing the loose plank in the barn and hoeing the manure down into the pit in the hill bottom foundation of the barn. No more pails of milk in the separator, spinning out every grade of dairy from sinfully heavy cream to barely palatable skim milk. We had an aunt who demanded that the milk be pasteurized. They didn’t really know how to do it properly, so they tended to overheat it. That made the milk taste scorched, but we went along with it, anyway. Science, you know.

At the end of a visit we would go back to our home, watch Walter Cronkite and the latest escapades of Colonel Hogan and his heroes. See the latest goings on in Disneyland (I was convinced that Walter Cronkite and Walt Disney were brothers. They had the same name and looked alike, after all.) Our own expectations for the future were that we would grow up, go to college and get a job making-get this-ten thousand dollars a year! And that would be good money! That was expected to set us for life. A life of luxury, no less.

My expectations didn’t work out quite that way. Now I think things like, “How frugal will I have to become in the future?”, “Should I be thinking about getting a second job some day?” and “How is my daughter going to make out in her future?” I think about putting solar panels on my house and have resuscitated a garden in my back yard that my daughter and I used to play around with when she was young and the garden was not necessary. I am proud to say that I can, throughout an entire growing season, produce enough food to feed myself for about a week (provided I buy something for the main course, of course.) Next I’ll work on feeding cows and horses.

If the absolute worst happens, then we are all toast, unless you happen to live high up in the mountains of Peru and don’t have a word for ‘petroleum’ or ‘hideous collapse’ in your native language and are already feeding yourself and your animals with bio fuel. Those who successfully avoided the Christian missionaries (or just ate them) may have the last laugh after all, though it may be less of a laugh and more of a, ‘Just what was that, anyway?’

I don’t know how I would answer that question.

The Oilman’s Dilemma (2/27/07)

People in Anthropology and Economics departments at universities like to use thought experiments and goal based games to explore human interactions and perhaps explain, or at least model, why people behave the way they do. Some of them are quite clever, such as the object of this discussion: The Prisoners’ Dilemma. Without going into detail about the origin of this thought experiment, let me just explain how it is used today.

Two people enter into some kind of cooperative arrangement. This has to be a single interaction. In its simplest form, there are two options for each of the participants, and therefore four possible outcomes to the entire interaction. The options are: You can live up to your end of the bargain (cooperate) or shirk your responsibilities (cheat.) When two people enter into an exchange like this, they can both cooperate, they can both cheat or some combination giving a total of four outcomes.

The reward structure is based on points gained. The amount of points that a player can earn depends upon how much cooperation occurs according to certain rules. Suppose both parties cooperate. In this case, each party gains three points. If both cheat, they each gain only one point. So far, cooperation seems to make the most sense. However, it gets more interesting when one cooperates and one cheats. In this case, the one who cooperates gets nothing (called the Suckers prize) while the one who cheats gets five points (called the Temptation).

So, if you enter into a Prisoners' Dilemma game with one other person, this is how you will reason: If I live up to my end of the bargain (cooperate) and so does the other person, I will get three points. However, if I cooperate and he doesn’t, I will get nothing, which is the worst case for me. If he cheats then the best strategy is for me to cheat, too, as a defensive strategy. In this case I will get only one point, which is better than nothing. Furthermore, suppose that he cooperates. If I cooperate also, I will gain three points, but if I cheat, I will get five points, which is obviously better for me.

In both cases, the safest strategy is to cheat. Cheating in the first case is defensive whereas cheating in the second case is opportunistic. Unfortunately, your opponent is thinking the same way. Ironically, when viewed in total, the greatest outcome only comes when both parties cooperate. In this case, the total gross number of points is amassed: Six points. If one cheats and one cooperates, that total is five. The worst case, where both parties cheat, results in only two points. Even though the best strategy for both parties taken together is for both to cooperate, the most likely outcome seems to be for both to cheat, which results in the worst outcome for all involved.

The Prisoners' Dilemma has been applied to many cooperative ventures, such as OPEC pumping quotas, cooperative farming and contributing to Public Radio. The reward structure reflects the difference between how much you put in and how much you take out (EROI.) Cheating gives you a greater reward since your investment is less. There may be less to go around because you haven’t put in your fair share of the work, but you personally get more out of it. Your own personal energy returned on energy invested is greater. Of course, if nobody contributes then there is even less left over to share. This model works great with an enterprise that requires investment of labor, such as a shared garden. It also works with other shared resources.

Let’s look at the OPEC example.

If two countries agree to production limits and honor those agreements, they will collectively produce the most profit on a per barrel basis. The reward, instead of being points won in a game, is actual money. Now, let’s suppose that I decide to cheat and pump more oil than is allowed by my quota. Since there is more oil mysteriously on the market, the price goes down. I get more money in total because I am pumping more oil at a reduced price, but the profit per barrel goes down. My partner, assuming that he is adhering to the quotas, suffers the reduction in revenue due to the inexplicably lower price of the oil but does not gain any extra revenue. Indeed, his revenue goes down since he is selling fewer barrels of oil at a reduced price. I get the Temptation while he is stuck with the Suckers prize.

If we both violate our pumping quotas, there is even more oil in circulation. The price goes down even more and the total profit for both of us, on a per barrel basis, goes down even further. We may get more money by pumping more oil, but at a lower profit margin. We both loose equally.

The temptation comes from the fact that two people can both share some common resource or one can benefit spectacularly at the expense of the other person as well as the degradation of the total system output. The cheater is milking the system which depletes the total while maximizing his own little portion.

Now let us take this game and apply it to the Peak Oil problem. As the availability of oil goes down and the price goes up, forces will dictate that we use less. Using less is a form of cooperation in the PD game. If everyone conserves, the supply will rise and the price will go down, such as we saw last fall going into winter (2006-2007.) Everyone wins. However, as soon as the price drops and supplies rise, the temptation will be to grab some more and hope that someone else keeps up the good work of conservation. I cancel that Prius order, schedule my winter vacation in the Bahamas and gleefully say, “Whew. Thank God that’s over!" What I in effect am doing is cheating while hoping that the other guy cooperates. However, if I conserve, turn down the thermostat and stuff newspaper under the doors of my modest house while my next door neighbor rolls into the driveway of his McMansion with his new Jeep Grand Cherokee towing a barge, then I’m the one stuck with the Suckers prize. My conservation has made it possible for someone else’s excesses.

So whatever the price of oil is, the safest and most opportunistic strategy is to use as much as I possibly can, whether that is great or small, and hope that someone else is conservative. Conservation is great, only not in my gas tank. From the reward structure of the Prisoners' Dilemma, conservation makes no sense whatsoever.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Musical Chairs (2/7/07)

We are all playing a game of musical chairs with the world’s oil supply. Every time the price of oil goes up five dollars or so, one chair gets moved away and someone, or some entire country, is politely escorted out of the oil game. Just kidding about the politely part.

Since my country, the United States of America, actually consists of two societal decks not quite randomly shuffled together, we actually have our own first world and third world coexisting in parallel universes. There is a dividing line above which you are affluent and below which you are poor. We used to designate a section as ‘middle class’, which sandwiched in nicely between first class and the cattle cars in the rear, but that distinction is going away. We just can’t afford it anymore. Sorry.

Each time an oil shock, a hurricane, a tornado, an energy adjustment on our electric bill, an increase in college tuition, health insurance or an inflation wedgie hikes up our pants more tightly against our nether regions, someone slips below that line. Someone who was struggling to survive now struggles but does not survive. Someone who was struggling to get by now struggles to survive and the rest of us tighten our belts. When the dust settles, those of us still standing reasonably well sigh in relief and exclaim, “Well, xx dollar a barrel oil isn’t that bad, is it? After all, the economy is still making that buzzing and sparking noise that means its working, right?”

I discovered Peak Oil in the summer of 2003. I had just installed a new efficient oil fired HVAC system in my house the year before. Boy did I back the wrong horse. I did ask Mr. Oil Man about exotic things like heat pumps and wood furnaces, over concern for some possible future energy problems that might occur some time down the line eventually by and by. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “With a Bush in the white house, we’ll always have plenty of oil.” The wisdom of that false association is in serious doubt today.

So, what can an average baby boomer like myself expect of the near future? Being a reasonable and rational human being, I like to know what my options are so I can plan for them adequately. Peak Oil, I am informed, actually occurred over a year ago and we are starting to more than wobble on the edge of that path of civilization cut into the cliffside of resource availability. The path narrows and fewer and fewer of us will be able to walk abreast along it for much longer. The view is great, by the way.

Having read all of the literature, insulated my house and replaced all of the windows with energy efficient ones, including that spray foam stuff you can squirt between the shims and the window frames, I am wondering what to expect next? Should I install photovoltaic cells on my rooftop? Should I begin amassing stockpiles of condoms and vodka? Salt might be a reasonable thing to have plenty of in the post peakalyptic world. I hear you can trade a tablespoon of salt for some meat or sexual favor. Well, maybe not, but it sounds good on paper. Will we enter the horrifying world of Mad Max? More likely it will be the desperate world of an Astonished Max as things get worse and that imaginary event horizon between impoverished and affluent creeps inexorably in our direction. Prepare to be politely escorted across that line. Just kidding about the politely part.

To adequately plan, or even to futilely plan for that matter, one must know what to expect. In other words, what is the worst case scenario, the best case scenario and what can one reasonably plan for? Well, the worst case scenario is too horrifying to consider. And here it is: That line between starvation and affluence rockets directly to the ninety ninth percentile and most of us are politely escorted out of the game. Just kidding-well, you get the idea.

The elites of our society, as is true of all elites everywhere and at all times, hold onto their positions. Paris Hilton will not wear a gunny sack, at least not involuntarily, and Brittany Spears will not want for clean underwear, should she want it at all, that is. If we do engage in oil wars, they will only have the effect of destroying large segments of the population but not providing any more oil for any more people. There will be a scramble to keep some framework of economic structure going at whatever cost. Even with dwindling supplies and a wealthy class that is only out for themselves, you still need some functioning peasant class to provide the goods and services for the noble born. Futuristic robots will not tend the fields and pour the wine for the idle rich. The poor you always have with you. And for good reason. Someone has to do the work.

The Amish and some Amazonian tribes people living comfortably away from missionaries and iPods won’t notice a thing. Except for the odd weather, that is, and the fact that it seems to be a lot quieter for some reason. Few people will be interred in Halliburton brand concentration camps, except as spontaneous communities of homeless people. The Federal government will be lucky to keep the lights on, let alone exercise any kind of jurisdiction over any kind of Orwellian state. Think ‘the Balkanization of North America’ meets Gilligan’s Island. The rest of us (if you are reading this, you are probably one of ‘us’) will be better occupied building shelters out of highway billboards and cutting up telephone poles for firewood, while looking longingly forward to our evening meal of rat tartare.

The good news is that this only applies to the survivors.

Well, that was pleasant. How about the best case scenario? In the best case, things will only gradually get worse. The so called ‘soft landing’ scenario, though the difference between a recession and a depression depends entirely upon which side of that imaginary line you have been escorted to, politely or otherwise.

With each increase, each chair removed from the game, people will have less to spend and, therefore, they will spend less. The airline industry becomes, as it was originally, a plaything for the rich. People in rural communities are forced together. There is a resurgence in local activities like dances and socials at the local grange hall. People carpool with their neighbors, after being properly introduced, of course. Church attendance increases along with Sunday picnics, quilting, canning, gardening, local sports and live theatre. Boy and girl scouts and 4-H clubs become more than quaint childhood distractions. These things happen gradually until, suddenly, they are cool again. As we know, the invention is ninety nine percent PR. Forget about that perspiration stuff. It’s all about appearances. Once we are forced to live together, it will become fashionable again. Kind of like lava lamps. Who would have thought that they would be in style again? Well, a coup in the driveway, chicken coop, that is, may be the new way to keep up with the Joneses.

Local diploma mills, like the southern New England state university where I work, may remember that they were originally agricultural land grant institutions long before they had cooperative ventures with the likes of United Technologies, Pfizer and the Department of Defense. They might start offering weekend classes on gardening, raising chickens and rabbits, tanning and making your own real for real jam from berries you picked yourself from these things called bushes.

The bad news is that this only applies to the survivors.

My fear is that something in between will happen. Things will continue to get more expensive and worldwide tensions will rise as they have since the time of John the Evangelist. It will happen fast enough to be noticeable but not fast enough to prompt people to do anything reasonable like take any kind of action or make preparations. That line will keep creeping up until there is a snap. People like to use the words ‘tipping point’ today, as if our society is playing see-saw with the elements of nature. This is going to be more like the tipping point that happens when a speeding car encounters a rock wall. Guess who tips?

The people in my country, I am afraid to say, have somehow gotten the impression that we deserve the finest things in life, no matter from where, or from whom, we get them. The last president to tell the American people to stop acting like spoiled brats and to take some responsibility for our lives was replaced by an actor. Point taken. All subsequent politicians from then on understood that the American people wish for entertainment, not reality.

When the snap finally comes the audience will not like how the film ends. In this case, it would not be wise to be a member of a community where you are ‘making do’ while the surrounding tribes are starving, scrambling for scapegoats and looking for some excuse to do what they’ve been doing all along, anyway, just not so obviously. That is, take for themselves at the expense of others. Mad Max is just hungry and self insufficient, after all. And he may have a gun.

There is an old saying. Those who will not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. This is usually uttered by someone who has some pet lesson of his own that he wants to lend credibility to, accompanied by knowing looks and ominous music. Well, I am no exception. Only I like to cut to the chase. I feel that, if history teaches lessons, then what is the greatest lesson? Of all of history’s textbook cases that we have been offered from Herodotus to Doris Kerns Goodwin, what is the one that I should not leave the classroom without learning?

The greatest lesson of history is that people don’t learn lessons from history. Interestingly, the people who learn this lesson are the most successful, provided they can pack up their wagons and escape just before the tar pot and feather pillow comes out, that is. Politicians, snake oil salesman, shale oil salesman, hydrogen salesman, Oh, a whole host of charlatans selling something will grapple with each other to get our attention first, thus squandering our resources and taking our lunch money until it is far past the time when we could have actually done anything to prepare at all. A historian, it seems, is born every minute. Then, when the fresh scent of boiling tar perfumes the air, they will be gone and some other unfortunate, probably someone who used to regularly post on Peak Oil websites, will be blamed for the misfortune. And anyway, we have all this tar. It would be a pity to waste it.

History’s great lesson, then, is that we are all being had. Those of us that aren’t having, that is. As Sweeney Todd sings in the Sondheim musical of the same name, “The history of the world, my sweet--Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!” I think I’ll go back to uttering platitudes and pretending that history has something inspiring to teach me.

So how can we effectively plan? Maybe the best we can do is to brace ourselves for the shock and hope for the best. Pay off our debts. Watch our backs. If we do have it better than others, keep a low profile. Think both more highly and more suspiciously of our fellow man. Make peace with our neighbors. Darken the doors of our local town hall, grange or church. Have an ample supply of clean undergarments, in case Brittany stops by. And keep that salt shaker full.

Of course, while we are waiting, the natural tendency for human beings to joke about their situation will kick in. It is only a matter of time, really, before some crude individual introduces black humor into the Peak Oil debate. After all, people have been making light of bad situations for as long as there have been stand up comics and tragedies to either laugh or cry over. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. So I’ll start.

How many post oil dwellers (PODs) does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to put the pitch pine torch into the empty socket and one to strike flint to tinder.

OK. That was in poor taste. How could I say something like that in the face of such a dire future? Here’s another one. Why did the POD cross the 27 lane super highway? He was out for a leisurely walk. All right. I’ll stop. I promise.

At least, don’t get me started on knock-knock jokes.