Can We Learn from History?

John Michael Greer applies his knowledge of history and ecology to the current financial crisis. Civilizations that have collapsed often took for granted essential resources until it was too late to recover. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Unnoticed Technologies.

Like the inhabitants of Easter Island, we depend on the reckless exploitation of limited resources to sustain our way of life; like the civilizations of the Middle East whose fate was chronicled by ibn Khaldûn, our survival depends on fragile infrastructure systems that few of us understand and most of our leaders seem entirely willing to starve of necessary resources for the sake of short-term political advantage. The industrial system that supports us has been in place long enough that most of us seem to be unable to conceive of circumstances in which it might no longer be there.

One of the wrinkles of catabolic collapse – the process by which societies in decline cannibalize their own infrastructure to meet immediate needs, and so accelerate their own breakdown – is that it can trigger abrupt crises by wrecking some essential technology that is not recognized as such. We are already witnessing the early stages of exactly such a crisis. What large trees were to the Easter Islanders and irrigation canals were to the early medieval Middle East, the current form of money economy is to modern industrial society, and the speculative delusions that passed for financial innovation over the last few decades have played exactly the same role as the invading nomads of ibn Khaldûn’s history, by stripping a fragile system of resources in the pursuit of immediate gain. The result, just as in the 1930s, is that a nation still relatively rich in potential resources, and provided with a large and skilled labor force, is sliding into crushing poverty because the intricate social system we use to allocate labor and resources has broken down.

Other unwelcome surprises along the same lines are likely events in the future. Before we get there, however, those of us who are concerned about the possible downside of history might be well advised to pay more attention to the unnoticed technologies in our lives, and to start thinking about how to make do without them, or get some substitute in place in a hurry, if the unthinkable happens and one or more of them suddenly goes away.

Quotes from Thomas Jefferson

I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around the banks will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.

When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become as corrupt as Europe.

The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.

It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world.

I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.

My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.

No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.

The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.

via Scott Williams

P.S. I spent five great years in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Jefferson is revered. I concur.

Time to Start Your Garden?

While this Financial Times article points to the recession as the impetus, I suggest that mistrust of foods of unknown origin and desire for locally grown healthy food should be included in the mix.

Ann and I planted a row of lettuce in our organic garden yesterday.

Link: FT.com / Companies / Food & Beverage – Seed merchants benefit from urge to dig deep.

Americans are turning in increasing numbers to their back yards to save money, with leading US seed merchants reporting a dramatic surge in early sales of carrots, tomato and pepper plant seeds.

George Ball, chairman of W. Atlee Burpee, which sells directly to gardeners and via retailers such as Home Depot, told the Financial Times that sales of vegetable seeds had grown 20-30 per cent this year.

Mr Ball said belt-tightening and economic concerns were the dominant factors driving demand, which had been stimulated last year by the high cost of petrol, and food safety concerns, following a scare over contaminated store-bought salad greens.

The boom in vegetable planting has already had a knock-on effect for other businesses. Ball’s, part of Jarden, the homewares conglomerate, says sales of its preserving jars and lids increased 40 per cent last year.

A recent survey of 12,000 visitors to a Ball’s website on preserving techniques, www.freshpreserving.com, found that more than 70 per cent respondents intended to preserve more foods in an effort to save money on weekly groceries.

Chris Scherzinger, head of marketing at Jarden Home Brands, said that the increase in sales continued a pattern seen during recessionary periods in the 1970s.

”We find that in tough economic times, Ball jar sales numbers increase significantly. We are seeing this now due to the recent economy, “ he said.

Lowe’s, the home improvement retailer, also suggested last year that strong sales of freezers partly reflected increased freezing of garden produce.

In an effort to catch the mood, Park Seeds, another leading seed company, is this year again selling a “Victory Garden” multi-seed pack, that also includes squash and beans, with its marketing recalling the victory gardens planted in the US and the UK during the second world war.

Burpee’s marketing message for its Money Garden is more closely focused on the current crisis, saying that gardeners can “watch your assets grow before your eyes”.

Boondoggles to the Rescue! Do We Laugh or Cry?

Kollapsnik at ClubOrlov helps us laugh at the institutions that drive our country.

I think TARP should be on the list of major boondoggles.

Humor helps mask the pain of the effects of these boondoggles.

Link: ClubOrlov: Boondoggles to the Rescue!

Economic collapse has a way of turning economic negatives into positives. It is not necessary for the United States to embrace the tenets of command economy and central planning to match the Soviet lackluster performance in this area. We have our own methods that are working almost as well. I call them “boondoggles.” They are solutions to problems that result in more severe problems than those they attempt to solve.

Just look around and you will see boondoggles sprouting up everywhere, in every field of endeavor: we have military boondoggles like Iraq, financial boondoggles like the doomed retirement system, medical boondoggles like private health insurance and legal boondoggles like the intellectual property system. At some point, creating another boondoggle becomes the preferred course of action: since the outcome can be predicted with complete accuracy, there is little risk. Proposing a solution that might work runs the risk of it not working.

So why not, as a matter of policy, only propose solutions that are guaranteed to simply create more problems, for which further solutions can then be proposed? At some point, a boondoggle event horizon is reached, like the light event horizon that exists at the surface of a black hole. Beyond that horizon, the only possible course of action is to create more boondoggles.

The combined weight of all these boondoggles is slowly but surely pushing us all down. If it pushes us down far enough, then economic collapse, when it arrives, will be like falling out of a ground-floor window. We just have to help this process along, or at least not interfere with it. So if somebody comes to you and says, “I want to make a boondoggle that runs on hydrogen” — by all means encourage him! It’s not as good as a boondoggle that burns money directly, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Gone with the Windmills? The downside of wind power.

Chris Bolgiano shines a green light on windmills in A Plea to President Obama to Save the National Forests of Appalachia, excerpted at Via Negativa. Here's the PDF.

Bottom line: Keep the windmills on the Great Plains.

Link: Gone With The Windmills? A Plea to President Obama to Save the National Forests of Appalachia « Via Negativa.

These forests now face their greatest threat in a century.

Reflecting a nearly 50% nationwide increase in wind electricity plants in 2007, developers are arriving in what they themselves called “a gold rush” at a recent industry conference. There, a wind map ranked thin red currents along the highest Appalachian ridges as just possibly strong enough to power turbines for massive industrial wind installations.

Glossy ads for wind power always show turbines in open fields, never in forests. That’s because every turbine requires up to five acres of deforestation. Hundreds of turbines are being built here, burgeoning to tens of thousands if the U.S. Department of Energy indiscriminately pursues its “20% Wind Energy By 2030″ program. Do the math, and factor in the forest fragmentation that multiplies the loss of habitat, and the super-wide new roads that destroy the last remote, wild ridges.

wind turbine with powerlinesSlender, rocky ridges are blasted and bulldozed to flatten pads for turbines. Each pad requires hundreds of tons of concrete. After the 25 year life span of the huge machines, the pads remain as dead ground but possibly good tennis courts in a summer camp for giants in the future.

Deforestation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuel burning. The rest of the world agreed at the recent U.N. climate summit to protect maturing forests that sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide — like those now healing from old abuse in the Southern Appalachians. In Transition to Green, the 400 pages of nature tips sent you by a coalition of environmental organizations, the first recommendation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture is to “manage the national forest system to secure climate benefits.”

Industrial wind will blow this opportunity away.

It’s already blowing away a lot of wildlife. Turbine blades reach 450 feet above ridge crests where songbirds migrate, bats feed, and eagles rise on thermals. Just across the state line in West Virginia, thousands of creatures are being killed every year at new wind plants, the highest kills ever documented worldwide from turbines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service strongly recommends against turbines on nearby Shenandoah Mountain due to the likelihood of killing endangered species, yet several projects are underway.

Some of the people living near turbines suffer from chronic sleeplessness and other symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome (including depression over loss of property values).

Death, destruction and insomnia are marketed to urban consumers as “green” electricity, what little there is of it. Turbines produce only about 30% or less of their maximum rated capacity, and some of that is lost along hundreds of miles of transmission lines. When the wind does blow, the aging lines can hardly handle the surge.

via Fred First at Fragments from Floyd