The Desire for Simplicity

You’d never know it from the technology press, but with some listening to other people, and some introspection, I’ve noticed a ferocious desire for the simple, the familiar. Yes, we love our smart phones, google searches, and digital music collections. But behind that there’s a realization that solving one problem introduces another.

Listening to the long standing technology podcast Linux Action Show I listened as the host Chris discussed his new found love of “wearables” specifically the Pebble watch. What was great about Pebble, he said, was how he didn’t have to constantly check his smart phone for updates and communication. He could send the really important messages to his watch. I’ve greatly enjoyed the Linux Action Show, but I kind of want to tell him, “Dude, three years, five years from now your watch is going to feel like the same burden.”

He has an excellent show that he works really hard at, and gets a lot done. But the problem he describes, being bombarded with information from eighty million sources, just isn’t a technical one. It’s a problem older than humans themselves. Prioritizing. It’s particularly hard to do these days, and probably more important than ever.

I remember once sitting in a pledge drive for my community radio station, with someone about ten years younger than me. He seemed to possess an endless fascination with useless information. I forget almost everything of what he showed me. That is, other than a graph where it was compared, in all fifty states, the relative frequency of the search term “Christianity” and “free gay porn”. The highest searches for both terms? The deep South. An easy explanation presents itself. The South is religiously conservative (religion) and because of this, the best place to get pornography for its citizens is the Internet, which they can access through the privacy of their homes. Why did I need to know this useless fact? It was apparently “interesting”.

Not that trivia itself is particularly new. The board game Trivial Pursuit is an easy example of a previous iteration. But unlike trivial pursuit, you can just put the box away. Eventually, eventually, you run out of cards. So what happens? People who can’t prioritize their time are given endless means by which to avoid doing anything. People get tired of learning endless new things just to get simple things done. And since this is an age where a new technology can be invented to solve every problem, well, there are plenty of technical innovations. Examples:

  1. Libreoffice / Open Office. The open source competitor to Microsoft Word. For those of you that don’t remember the 1997-2003 versions of MS Office, the Libreoffice document suite is quite similar. Libreoffice is quite an innovative product these days. Offer a similar product to one that was produced twelve years ago that everyone liked and charge no money for it.
  2. The previously mentioned Pebble watch.
  3. The e-reader. Yes the technological upgrade from books. Books are awesome because I can’t click on hyperlinks. That allows me to focus on a complex issue without being distracted. Likewise, the e-reader can organize all your books in one place so you don’t even need to be connected to enjoy it. I in fact don’t have an e-reader. I just go to the library.
  4. Meetup.com. Yes, a social network specifically for organizing meetings. Why not use facebook? It’s too complex and infinitely distracting. I want to meet people in the real world! There’s still no substitute.

I could come up with examples all day. If you look at things from a different angle, time and again you see digital platforms arise to make things simpler than the platforms that exist today. People who think that tools, digital or no, are a means to an end, and when the tool requires more work than the problem it attempts to solve, you should put it back in the box. People who just want to live.

Long Term Environmental Crises

Today’s blog post is dedicated to what I see as the major issues in the environment as they stand today. The qualifications for this list are global and systemic issues. They don’t include point pollution or isolated cases. Here are the problems:

1) Agriculture and the coming population crash. Chemical farming methods are based on the use of massive inputs from petroleum. Conventional oil has peaked, or better put: the easy oil is over. Unconventional oil takes a great deal more energy to produce. The equation is clear, more energy for less oil. Since our current population is dependent on oil for food, that means some kind of population crash. How soft (more extensive use of birth control and organic farming) or hard (famine) the crash is will depend on our actions. Things can be improved by reducing our number one petroleum use: transportation via privately owned cars.

2) The easy oil is over. This is the source of problem one, but I preferred a concrete example first. Everything in our economy is in one way or another dependent on oil. The machines that make our stuff, the machines that make those machines, the machines that extract the fossil fuel which run those machines, and unfortunately the machines that produce large solar panels and windmills. This is not to mention the stuff we make from oil, plastics, pesticides, etc. Ever increasing energy prices thus pulls the rug out of the industrial economy. How soft (a gradual industrial decline on a more sustainable basis.) or hard (complete economic collapse) this problem is will be our dependent on our actions. Circumstances might be mitigated if we cut back on the number use of petroleum: transportation via private vehicles.

3) Climate change. Notice climate change as opposed to global warming. Though the scientific consensus maintains that it has been going on and will most certainly continue, many are convinced this is a hoax or not a big deal. The real concern isn’t the warming of a few degrees. The concern comes because temperature fluctations will hit certain areas particularly hard. The even bigger problem is that agricultural society’s entire life span has happened during an unusually great degree of climate stability. The worry is that one (and possibly many more) of the factors that keeps climate stable and 21th century life possible will be knocked out by the warming. How soft (a collection of adverse new weather problems) or hard (agricultural failure because weather is unpredictable) this problem will turn out is dependent on how well we curb our fossil fuel use.

All these problems are pretty much locked in. I think our future is going to consist of a lot more people not knowing how to feed themselves (even moreso than at current poverty rates), unable to maintain a lifestyle based on fossil fuel personal transport, and more extreme weather of all kinds from stifling drought to torrential floods. Civilization’s ability to cohere will be put to the test and relatively soon.

Peak Oil and Blog Axioms

I started this blog with a vague idea that oil would run out and that technology would have to scale in response. I imagined a split where high technology might be the best option for some problems, and older methods would be better for others. I called the later process downgrading.

It seems to be now that the post oil future is much closer than I imagined as I’ve found in my research on peak oil. Oil is a finite resource and behaves like all other finite resources: after extraction has been in earnest, the more you extract, the harder it becomes to find any more. Oil wells decrease in their ability to produce when they mature.

This is a relatively easy concept to understand. What I hadn’t understood until quite recently was the phenomenon of peak oil. Essentially, real trouble starts not when you get all of the oil out (as I previously imagined) but when you get half of the oil out. This is because at this point, you can’t get oil out any faster.

This means less supply and coupled with surging demand means higher prices.  In the short term this means high gas prices, prices that don’t go down without a serious blow to demand (a recession). Is it any wonder gas prices spiked in 2008, dipped during the worst parts of the recession, and has started to return to now near 2008 prices?

In the longer term it means a redefinition of the whole economy, an economy whose health is measured by growth. Economic growth has gone hand in hand with increased energy inputs. Without an increase in energy consumed, we may be entering a period where economic growth is no longer possible.

That’s a bold statement. Economic growth powers today’s current economy. (why else would economists fuss over it so much?) It’s anathema to suggest it might go away, especially since lack of growth seems to fuel recession and growth equals wealth. But after all, when a car runs out of gas it really can’t go any further. The challenge is creating a future that is livable but with less stuff.

Bottom Up Solutions

Our institutions, be they government or business, seem enamored with a certain variety of  bigness. The idea is give tax breaks to the rich, they’ll invest their money, grow the economy, people will be employed and everone will be happy.

This simple picture fails to take into account one problem: the rich are not always good investors. Indiscrimate tax cuts give large amounts for speculators that create burst bubblings that send the economy sinking. More money to rich speculators means more instability that is not conducive to employment.

In the dialogue about the bailouts I agreed with the assessment that the poor performing banks were too big to fail. I felt for practical reasons they’d have to be propped up. But the whole point of capitalism (from a classical standpoint) is that no entity should be too big to fail. Smaller banks engaged in perpetually poor decisions would have tanked quicker and brought attention to our economy’s structural problems much sooner.

The banks weren’t broken up, but merged to get bigger. Banks have a problem when scaling up: the bigger they get, the less local information they can use to determine if a smaller loan is worth the risk. Thus they must stick with larger customers.

2/3 of all new jobs are created by small (less than 100 employees) businesses. This alone should create some effort to get money into local lenders. But I also think local solutions are going to be the majority of solutions regarding our energy problems/climate change problems. Government can spend long sessions deciding to up car mileage standards from 25 to 28 or three people who would drive separately to work can commute in a 20 mpg car.

Reduction and recycling of waste, alternative transportation, home gardening/food storage are all sectors that I think will take off once people understand the savings involved. Those kind of businesses aren’t going to be started by the corporations who are sitting on fat stacks of cash they don’t know what to do with. Many big businesses have stopped investing. They don’t need any more money. It’s time to start giving money back to the people who best know how to use it.

New Neighbors

I must admit not liking meeting people or mild conversation amongst acquaintances. Today’s conditions make ignoring all social contact outside of your circle of friends rather easy (unless you have co-workers I suppose). Between unlimited long distance, texting, and social networks like facebook, combined with the car that lets you go anywhere you choose, intense privacy and a general ignorance of one’s own neighbors is not only possible, but widespread.

I bring this up not out of sentimental reasons, but practical ones. People are struggling with current gas prices and it’s my view that those prices, though they might settle, will keep going up. Up far enough that middle class Americans might not be able to afford daily car use.

Right now we just get up and go, with commutes 1/2 hour or more both ways. Obviously this can’t last forever. As I’ve heard from a Shell executive on NPR, “all the easy oil is gone”. This means offshore drilling, oil shale, tar sands, and heavy oil will start to be our main sources. That’s going to hurt at the pump.

So I imagine that when gas prices get high enough there will be an outcry for public transit and a culture shift in those areas where public transit might not be suitable. That is, knowing your neighbors, such that mass grocery runs, community transportation centers, and multiple family school drives might become common place.

I say this because currently there are no real alternatives to cars with internal combustion engines that run on gasoline. The new electric cars coming out right now just don’t have the range necessary in some suburban sprawl areas. They can handle a commute but that’s about it. Then they have to charge for hours using power that’s still coming from fossil fuels.

The real way to cut down on gasoline consumption is take advantage of the fact that cars generally come with four seats. Theoretically, if you spent half your time in someone else’s car, you’d cut down on half the gas you pay and put half the miles on your own vehicle. In the future it may pay handsomely to know your neighbors.

This change won’t happen right away, even with gas $3.50+/gallon. Moreover, there is a certain feeling of independence in a vehicle. You go anywhere you’d like (within reason) and there’s nothing to stop you from listening to Rush Limbaugh or death metal. Outside of traffic laws and safety considerations, no one can tell you what to do when inside your car. The desire for that kind of freedom will certainly not vanish overnight.

But demand for oil is going up, up, up. The reason you knew your neighbors long ago was because they were the only people you could go to for help. I’m speaking of a much more rural existence of course, but it was the case in many rural areas that you stayed on the farm. Going to town was something you did on weekdays. I think rising oil prices will have the same effect: carpooling will be the only affordable way to get around. Hybrids will save on gas, but if four people take a 40 mile commute to work in the same 20 mpg gas guzzler versus four people all taking 40 mpg hybrids the gas guzzler will get more performance to the four hybrids. I have a great deal of skepticism that there will ever be a true replacement to the fossil fuel run vehicle. Community transportation might be the wave of the future.

US Economic Trends and the Long Emergency

I’ve been absent from this blog recently, which is something I intend to change. I’ve read a challenging and interesting book, the Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. I must give this book some credit for some of the posts that will now ensue, but in this post I want to try to state the world as it is before imagining as it could be.

It is a general maxim that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In a political environment geared towards reduced the national deficit and budget, we cannot seem to tax the rich. When the Republicans made a roaring comeback in the 2010 elections, they were supposed to save our country’s finances by fixing the budget. No sooner had they entered office then they refused to let tax cuts for the rich expire. These tax cuts have primarily benefited the highest of income earners. One would think that in the midst of chronic unemployment tax cuts for the rich would be quite unpopular, especially the top 2% of income earners. But apparently this is not the case. It would appear that the struggling American worker simply doesn’t know how to vote in their economic best interests.

Watching TV the other day I noticed Wall Street analysts completely confused about the perception of the American public. Recent surveys indicate the majority of Americans think the economy is getting worse, but stock prices were at record levels. High stock prices indicate investors are confident the American economy is doing well. So where does this come from? The poor are more convinced the economy is not doing well while investors have not been so confident in some time?

Honestly I think the answers lie in globalization and unemployment. Individuals struggling to find work in America are not doing well. Meanwhile corporations are easily offsetting weak performance in America with income from other nations. Multinational corporations are infamous for dropping local staff and outsourcing operations overseas. It might be the case that corporate America, a major employer, just doesn’t need as many American workers as it used to. If you look at the numbers, big business is doing great.

But globalization is possible for one reason alone: cheap oil. The low cost of fuel is the only reason it’s cheaper to pay factory workers abroad next to nothing and then ship the resultant product 12,000 miles away.  When transportation costs outweigh the savings in labor, manufacturers will start to return to the US (or at least to the Mexican border regions). The bad news about this is that it won’t happen until gas prices spike for quite some time.

Let’s face it, gas prices are going nowhere but up. Back in the late 90’s I remember seeing gas at $0.77 a gallon. Now, even when deep recession greatly lowers demand, prices reach lows at around $2.50 and seem to peak at $4+. What’s causing this spike in gas prices? Three words: it’s running out. What’s left is increasing difficult to get. The concept of peak oil is important to discuss. Essentially, because oil is increasingly more difficult to pump out as the well supply decreases, there comes a point where there is nothing you can do to increase production other than to find another oil field. Oil, however, is a limited resource and discovering new fields is also subject to peak. Experts agree the world discovery peak is decades behind us. The implication is obvious: when peak oil hits, there will be no way to change the supply/demand dynamic by increasing supply. Demand is going up, and so price is going to go predictably up with it.

At least, the general trend is upward. Prices often ease over time, but even minor threats to our oil supply can result in huge price hikes at the pump. Basically, when oil is perceived to be in any trouble, some entities who need oil no matter what buy that oil on futures markets, often at prices far above market value. This predictably ups the price of gasoline by increasing demand and reducing supply. The current unrest in the Middle East is probably not going to be in serious trouble, but Middle Eastern troubles have made serious dents before.

I made a prediction in the winter months that prices at the pump in the summer would return to their 2008, $4+ levels. This was based on the fact that the only thing that shot them down was the recession. Numbers lead experts to state the recession is over. The economy is growing and unemployment is going down slowly. So I figured since gas prices spike in summer and we’re in modest recovery, oil prices would go straight up. My prediction was based on the idea that oil was running out though it seems that turbelence in the Middle East (where 60% of the reserves remain) is the cause instead.

The increased price may decrease summer trips this year, and so the general summer effect on prices might not be as pronounced. Regardless, as stated before, it’s running out. I hadn’t come to appreciate how dire the consequences of running out of oil would be. This was until I read James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, and traveled for small town Missouri to San Antonio. A significant number of people have constructed a living environment that’s near impossible to manage without a car. Personal transport is the number one consumer of oil. There’s no replacement for oil in our cars. Some electric vehicles have come on line, but they had a limited range, less than many daily commutes. In daily commuting, current electric cars would probably provide just enough range for a single day’s transport before having to be recharged for hours, and of course the electricity is most likely being produced by the burning of fossil fuels. In this area, nothing can substitute for oil.

Many other fields remain the same. Plastics can only be produced through oil refining. Plastics are polymers whose structure is attained by creating long chains of hydrocarbons refined out of oil until it becomes mostly octane, or gasoline. Oil provides the raw material for these structures. Even a completely renewable energy system would probably still need oil for chemical engineering. But will we ever get to that renewable energy future? The Long Emergency challenges that renewable energy future. Kuntsler makes note that all the current renewable energy equipment is being produced in factories with energy inputs far greater than renewable energy can provide on its own, hence energy derived from renewable sources is still dependent on oil.

My vision for the future of energy had been a bit different. I thought higher gas prices would begin to make renewable energy more profitable and (herein lies the difference in our thinking) that the overall higher energy prices would lead to a decrease in demand (energy conservation). What really challenged my thinking was the simple fact that demand is not decreasing. The continued expansion of oil depedent suburbia, the excesses of consumer electronics and other goodies, and the new infrastructure needed for 4G continues, oblivious to the fact that they are all dependent on oil. Meanwhile, outside the country that’s the biggest consumer of oil (the US), developing nations are looking to expand their oil use in an effort to become fully industrialized themselves. China and India, both with populations of a billion, first come to mind, but where in the world is demand for oil going down? (If you are reading this don’t spare me the details, I offer a challenge to those in the know.)

The Long Emergency, written in 2005. Seems to anticipate many of the major events since it was written. Kuntsler declared suburban expansion unsustainable and that it would topple (housing bubble) though to be fair I don’t know if he expected the problem would come directly from the top (the big financials) who were so convinced of the incivibility of the housing market that they took systemic and dangerous risks with their money. Oil experts predicted peak oil would happen in the 2000’s and I’m inclined to agree. Kunstler made the prediction that just after peak gas prices would wobble. In 2008 gas prices suddenly skyrocketed, and only a contracted recession brought them down. Now, as soon as it seems the country is making a modest recovery, gas prices surge again via turmoil in the Middle East.

I really don’t want this to come true, but I’m quite worried high gas prices will send the economy back to recession again. And I’m really not excited about a Republican sweep in 2012 because of the economy. Their belief in the efficiency of the market is now at the level of dogma: anything but privatization is heresy. I wished people would notice the correlation between Republican coddling of business interests and the massive financial meltdowns that tend to happen after a two term Republican president: George W. Bush and the financial crisis; Reagen and the savings and loan crisis; and yes Calvin Coolidge and the 1929 stock market crash.

Not that I want to make a foray into the world of politics. I don’t think the squabbling involved is going to get the country in better territory so much as culture change: a shift in how we do things on a day to day basis. That’s what downgraders is all about.

The Damnation of Suburbia

If I fooled you into thinking this was just another sustainability rant about the shallow culture of the American suburb, I apologize, though it was intentional. I grew weary listening a certain individual denouncing  the bankrupt culture of suburbia and how big an obstacle it will be in acheiving a truly sustainable society.

It was said with such smugness–the kind of smugness you get from knowing you are right when you are actually mistaken. My absence from my computer (and hence my blog) has given me time to ponder. Is there any realm of society where shallowness has not made its mark? Is there somewhere the morally bankrupt have failed to penetrate?

Aren’t the lower (err… working) class, middle class, and upper class all watching the same hollywood blockbusters? (personal experimentation confirms yes). Aren’t the working class zonking out on stolen Xanax while the middle class consumes their prescribed Xanax and the rich have a cocktail of sedating drugs that includes Xanax prescribed by private doctors? (To all the Xanax users who are mentally ill and medically require this effective drug I apologize for this example.)

Humans living a bourgeois existence pretty much act just like the rest of society: they seek pleasure and avoid pain. If seeking pleasure and avoiding pain involve petty behavior, the bourgeois are just as happy as anyone else to oblige. So what point is there in calling them the scum of the earth and finger waving?

For one thing, the bland image of suburbia is in itself a misconception. I have lived in DC suburbs and south Florida suburbs. The  south Florida suburbs are flimsy, ill fated attempts to pave over the Everglades to make room for the population boom resulting from the economic prosperity of the Sunbelt. Meanwhile my DC suburban middle school made national news when the police broke up a prostitution ring. (That’s right I said middle school).

Perhaps this particular individual was referring to the image of suburbs: the house, two cars, two kids, white picket fence kind. I admit to feeling that some of the worst offenders when it comes to terrible people include rich white people. (I’ll take the parenthetical time to espouse my belief that racism and red lining are alive and well in this country.) Still, I don’t see the damnation of a particular suburban culture useful.

The real problem is objective. Suburbs are a place where it is impossible to go anywhere without a car. (Meanwhile, in my current rural dwelling I have access to gas station food 24/7 within a five minute walk. Likewise I can buy actual food until 8 pm at a local grocer.)  I won’t belabor my point that we’re running out of fossil fuel (an axiom of this blog), but gas is going to get much more expensive much quicker than we’re currently prepared to deal with. Ten plus years ago, gas could be obtained for less than a dollar in some places. Now the cost at the Missouri pumps (among the cheapest in the nation) is $3. Through crude estimation, that would put $9 at the pump if that increase continues to 2020. That’s going to hit suburban communities pretty hard.

So what to do? Well, at issue is the tendency of suburbs to put everything in one place. All the houses go here, the strip malls go there, the office buildings go there, etc. Income levels also tend to be graded of course. This pattern all makes sense, if you’re driving. The strip malls line the major streets with big signs so everyone can find the businesses in them. Meanwhile the tricky and quirky streets are left for the few residents that live there.  You don’t have to get to know the neighborhoods, any business outing is all on the main drag. The distance between residential housing is somewhat irrelevant since it can easily be traversed by a car.

Now take the car out of the equation and see what happens. Businesses want to be close to their customers. So where do they want to be located? In the complete middle of a residential area. Hence one gets a downtown where people walk and bike.

Changing a suburban arrangement to a more sustainable downtown arrangement will be no easy task. However, despite my naysayer muse’s belief that a bastian of banality marks the condition of suburbs, I suspect many suburbanites may enjoy a transition from a complete car environment to a mixed use one. Who really wants to spend half their day in the car? (Well maybe if you’re using it for something other than driving?) And as a Truman State University student, I know how easily older buildings can be gutted to serve new purposes. Perhaps businesses will set up shop in all these foreclosed homes? I can only speculate.

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