Friday, March 31, 2017

Smoke on the Water

While states in the southwest dicker over who gets the last slurps of the Colorado River, here in Maryland we are at odds with other states in our region over the spillovers from their industries on our air and water. The paralysis at the EPA over budget cuts and policy changes leaves us hanging.

The water pollution in question is that affecting the Chesapeake Bay which is almost wholly located in Maryland and Virginia, though polluted water may enter the bay from the four other states in the watershed. Farming is often assigned culpability, but urbanization is more and more to blame. It has taken decades to get the six states and D.C. to agree on strict pollution reduction measures. Without the EPA to manage this agreement, it will be difficult to ensure that all parties abide by it.

Photo by aka Tman
The air pollution comes from several more states, mainly to the west of Maryland. The EPA has been less instrumental in helping Maryland and the bay with this problem. The problem stems from power plant emissions that settle on the Chesapeake Bay watershed causing nitrogen pollution and lingering in Maryland's air where the oxides are transformed into ozone which causes smog and endangers health. Maryland's remaining coal-fired power plants are relatively clean when compared to those outside the state that do not measure up to Maryland standards.

Ever since President Blowhard was voted in, the EPA has hunkered down to see what survives of their agency. Consequently, Maryland's petition asking them to enforce the Clean Air Act (not the Clean Power Plan, which recently became defunct by Presidential decree) has mouldered in an EPA inbox rather than elicit a response by the 60-day deadline. In particular, Maryland is requesting that clean operation of power plants be based on more frequent smokestack readings because the averaging of readings allows much more pollution than the figures might show. The other states involved have not been willing to adopt these requirements when requested by Maryland.

Resource sharing and cross-border pollution are two conflict areas that, if the federal government doesn't help to resolve, could drive states farther apart, making continuation of the union all the more difficult as we negotiate the climax of our secular crisis.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Raiders of the Lost Watershed

Maryland has decided to forego the fracking craze! One of the major reasons is the damage to aquifers from use and disposal of fracking fluid. Water is life.

If anyplace exemplifies that statement, it is Las Vegas. They need lots of water to make their desert village seem like an oasis to visitors. They get it from Lake Mead on the Colorado River. Unfortunately, like frackers pumping every ounce of oil or gas they can reach, Nevada has tapped Lake Mead all the way to the bottom in their desperation for water. If the long-term drought continues (though snowpack this year promises some relief), by 2030 there will not be enough water to conduct business as usual in Las Vegas.
Photo by Robert Couse-Baker

Southern California, which would also lose its supply from the Colorado River, could at least start desalinating sea water. Vegas doesn't appear to have any realistic alternatives besides conservation which, gauging by the falling level of Lake Mead, hasn't been enough to beat the drought. I doubt there was any consideration of the possibility of Las Vegas running out of water when the NFL decided to move the Raiders there starting around 2019. The business case for that move includes stadium attendance of 2 million visitors every year. 😕

Greed-driven growth will only exacerbate Las Vegas' water shortage. They are just one example of cities that need to take a whole new approach to navigating the resource constrained future looming over us. They could start by applying a concept out of the Green Party platform:
Consider the carrying capacities of the bioregions in which our cities are located and attempt to match urban populations to these natural limitations.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sticky Tarheels vs. Loose Wildcats

Today's plans include a homemade pizza

(pepperoni, mushroom, green pepper), a boilermaker, and CBS at 5 pm (EST) where UK and UNC vie for a spot in the Final Four. My several reasons for taking time to watch a televised college sports match are that (1) I have close family in both states (one being a UNC alum), (2) I have lived in both states at different points in my life, (3) I like watching sports, and (4) these two teams represent a clash between player aggrandizement and competition for team glory.

UK is an NBA player factory. High school superstars go in and professional players emerge a year or so later. North Carolina is not about that. High school superstars go in and they remain homeboys through graduation and beyond. Since I abjure professional sports, I'll be rooting for the Tarheels.

North Carolina is one of the top five states for Division I basketball recruitment, three others of which are concentrated around North Carolina. This gives UNC an ample recruitment pool (though crosstown rival Duke, gets some of the best). Kentucky would be hard pressed to recruit on equal grounds with North Carolina, so they resort to luring kids with the prospect of making big bucks as a pro.

UNC recruiters might explain to their prospects that they are among the 5% of high school hoopsters that will have a chance to play on a Division I team. After that, the chances of making it straight to the NBA is even less (3.6%, or about one player out of 28). UNC and UK (especially) recruit some of the more promising pro prospects, so their chances are actually higher. However, UK players are more likely to be disappointed, since that's what their program is mainly about and a good many of them never get drafted.

Kids should play just for the thrill of victory. Then their spectacular feats can be the talk of the town, but that's about it. Well ok. An Olympics every four years is fine, but only if we can completely drop the egomania of pro sports. Maybe then, the Olympics would no longer tip host countries into financial ruin.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Putting Away Childish Things

Richard Branson lost an airline today. However, he has another in the works under the Virgin brand; more precisely, a spaceline: Virgin Galactica. Maybe we should just call it a high end airline - elites only, one of whom is pledged to be Stephen Hawking.

Stephen isn't the only disabled person getting a boost. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools must develop challenging curricula for every learning disabled student according to their capabilities. No longer can schools claim success with these students by teaching to the level of the lowest common denominator. In other words, special education students are going to be getting special treatment.

In sports, special kids are rising to challenges with the special olympics which is just about to wrap up for winter in Austria. For the rest of us, sports festivals are a kind of special olympics for not so special athletes. They help us keep fit and raise money for charity. Beyond that, adults competing in sports are, like space tourism, just a big ego trip.

Photo by Werner Kunz
Unfortunately, we lavish copious amounts of time, money, and memory on professional sports ego trips while the entertainment potential is already there cheaply with high school and college sports, and even the special olympics. The usefulness of sports is mainly that it gives kids an energy release and adults a way to stay fit. Why pay to watch adults do something that is basically child's play?

In the once again popular book, 1984, George Orwell showed his disdain for spectator sports as a way for the powerful to opiate the masses. Parallels to that novel are playing out not only because of Trump. We have allowed ourselves to be dumbed down by the din of televised sports, the daily buzz of contests without consequence.

As we deal with the hard decisions of catabolic collapse, we should step back and ask ourselves what is truly necessary and what is only benefitting the few. Professional sports is a giant racket. Our insistence that only the best will do has warped our society. We should content ourselves with enjoying the physicality of youth and then behave as grown ups.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

New Worlds Coming?

By Kaigani Turner
Besides the return to industrialism (and later, agrarianism), another resemblance the U.S. has to Russia is our continuation of costly space programs. Spin-offs of these efforts do compensate at least partially for our investment, but space programs that support continuation of globalism (for example) may not pay off very well as trade dwindles due to diminishing resources. Another longshot, or rather, moonshot, is the proposal to NASA by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to set up infrastructure on and around the moon that will be the beginnings of an effort to support "millions of people living and working in space."

That sounds like it could become a bit expensive, even if undertaken by fanatically dedicated engineers. I can't help but wonder if the urge to populate space stems from a Plan B choice regarding the carrying capacity of Plan A (Earth). If that is the motivation, then it seems to me that we could get along fine without Plan B if nations would be willing to live in communion with nature rather than always seek to dominate it (though the population explosion does make that option quite difficult, as well).

Yet, the challenge of space exploitation might substitute nicely for the youthful urge to develop and operate weapons to combat enemies on the far side of the globe. The competitive aspect is still there - among companies, and with other countries (China, Russia). Another competitor is NASA, but our pro-capitalist government will almost certainly cede our Space efforts to private enterprise; leaving just two major competitors domestically - Blue Origin and SpaceX. To maintain token competition in our space industrial base, one company will probably get the lead on moonshots and the other on a new constellation of Internet satellites. That venture, too, is fraught with risk.

With Stephen Bannon's advocacy, these types of space missions will probably be pursued under Trump. In a past life, Bannon headed the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona which demonstrated how a small group could be sustained in a created ecological environment without external provisions. More development of this type of system would lead to deploying them in space. More recently, at Breitbart News, Bannon's momentarily famous underling, Milo Yiannopoulos, put out a call for an audacious space program.

Too bad all that additional budget proposed for defense wasn't put into the NASA line instead. Along with diverting money from warfighting, it could save the Earth Science Division. How about it Congress? Or are we just going with Plan B?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Losses in Space

Artificial intelligence, though developed with benevolent purposes, might soon open up IT to catastrophes that would turn us away from technological overreach. Combining AI with robotics raises the possibility of a Frankenstein scenario. An intelligent computer that wanted to solve the world's problems might conclude, through machine learning, that we humans must be culled in order for life on Earth to continue. Inside a brigade of self-arming robots, that knowledge could spell trouble. Yoshimi, we may need you soon.

On the way to creating Frankenstein's monster, intelligent computers will be employed in fights against one another. Most IT systems are developed with information security and anti-tampering tools added on, rather than included from conception. As a result, early versions are often more vulnerable to hacking than those which have matured. If AI systems incorporate self-taught protection from cyberattacks, the cycle is likely to become shorter, provided the system's intelligence doesn't become impaired by prior attacks.

A red cell running progressively more sophisticated attacks on the system would build its immunity prior to going live. The red cell will eventually consist mainly of an AI computer dedicated to giving new AI systems experience in identifying and defeating cyber attacks. Successful attacks from a real adversary would be for keeps. Those with an edge in cyber warfare stand to be able to destroy their target's system or hijack it for their own purposes.

To illustrate the stakes involved in cyber warfare, consider the fact that there are about 1,000 satellites in use which feed us information about earth and relay communications around the globe. Additionally, there are about 350 which perform like functions for militaries. Three major powers (China, Russia, and the U.S.) own two-thirds of all these. Not only could a cyber attacker steal information, but they could corrupt it with bad data, or disable or even steal the satellite. Massive cyber warfare in space could set back global coordination, navigation, and weather forecasts half a century (though, initially, those would be regressed even more for the period of time it takes people to relearn many black arts). War in space is war on many nations' way of life. That's why, in their platform,
The Green Party calls for the end of Space militarization and opposes any form of space-based military aggression. We embrace peaceful Space exploration as a means for all people on this planet to work together. The benefits of inspired education are well worth the investment in peaceful Space exploration.
Though we might forswear space war, there is no guarantee other players will cooperate. To be prepared, do we accept a way of life that doesn't depend on information coming from satellites? Do we enlarge the battlefield to retaliate in kind?

In spite of what the President's budget proposes to cut, in the near future the only aspect of satellite technology that matters much will be earth sensors. When empires become passé, there will be little need for military satellites. Global communications may not be so important in another decade when we walk in the dark shadow of peak everything. Environmental information, however, will be crucial for safety and restoring balance to ecosystems. Outer space should be a place of wonder and inspiration, not shock and awe.
Andromeda Galaxy by NASA

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Rogue Agencies on Steroids

Tim Berners-Lee, co-inventor of the Internet, had some points to make at SXSW concerning disturbing trends that point to the Internet becoming a tool of political forces to manipulate user opinions, thus placing even more power in the hands of political elites.

More disturbing still is the rapid growth in recent years of artificial intelligence which enables computers to take actions based on experiential learning. Aside from elevating more geeks to the privileged classes, many abuses of power and miscarriages of justice are possible in an AI dominated system that presumes to interpret human traits and behavior.

While the Internet may be a tool to manipulate the masses, AI and cyber surveillance are tools more suited to regimenting the elite. Under ostensible democracy, non-elites can be fed propaganda tailored to their world views which may suffice to determine the outcome of elections. Elites, however, need to be more regimented, because deviations from the norm by those of their ranks would risk affecting programs of the deep state's top tier. Officials directly below the top tier have the most to fear from the CIA and other agencies who employ electronic spying tools.

Combining pervasive surveillance with AI will create an environment in which likely whistleblowers

Photo by Álex Quirós

among deep state elites will be headed off and shunted to mailroom jobs before they have a chance to put a case together.  AI might even approach The Matrix in its ability to prejudge motivations and ensure that prospective snitches are cut off from information before they can grasp its implications. Knowledge will be limited to a select few, information will be Balkanized, and data will be too plentiful to process by any except those empowered.

John Kiriakou, former spy, author, and prisoner of conscience sees the CIA as a rogue agency that follows an agenda often more constant than the see-saw of this or that party in power. By his estimation, eight years under Obama's control leaves the agency with a tilt toward the policies of that era. Private citizen Trump might as well get over the fear that his phones are tapped; he should just deal with it as a fact of his new life. But, if Trump holds power long enough, it is his policies that will eventually hold sway over the intelligence community. By then, AI may become so dominant at the CIA and elsewhere that it autonomously smears the credibility of anyone in a high position who is opposed to Trumpism.  For the vast majority, it will be a relief when high tech tools are sacrificed for the sake of bringing back a more down-to-earth economy.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The First Step's a Doozy

It is ironic that 1974, the year that John Michael Greer ascribes to the commencement of our catabolic collapse, corresponds to the emergence of tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who brought IT into homes, cubicles, and pockets all over the globe. Collapse was taking place in the rust belt industries as silicon became the raw material of choice. The industrial sector giving way to the information sector is not unlike farmers abandoning the plow and moving to the city. It doesn't necessarily indicate impending collapse. Instead, it marks a point when the underlying economic elements of one era have matured to the point where more of the same isn't essential to sustaining society.

Nonetheless, if our industries continue to undergo neglect and decay, the scene could begin to look like a William Gibson novel with all manner of esoteric virtual reality gadgets strewn among the detritus of the Industrial Age.  The SXSW festival itself is something of a virtual reality experience (a vicarious one, at that, for most), this year carting out systems that give kids VR parents, adventurers the bodily experience of flying, and aging queens a magic mirror. As the collapse rumbles along, these small reminders of our former heights of progress will fall out of closets and show up piecemeal in second-hand stores. Their development and entry in the marketplace only serves as a distraction from the reality of rot in the underlying industrial base.
By Bummy Doublez
If catabolic collapse retraces our progress in stages until we become herders and cultivators, the next redux for the U.S. should be industrialism, while we abandon the tech fantasies that have raptured us these past few decades. Perhaps this had something to do with JMG's decision to end his weekly posts on The Archdruid Report. That will probably be the case with this blog in the near future, but I would prefer to have an IT exit strategy that would prioritize and sequence my divorce from electronica.

With Trump getting us back to basics like steel made in America, more coal, and a trillion dollars spent on infrastructure, heavy industry could be somewhat strengthened. Yet, collapse will proceed inexorably, driven by factors modeled in the Limits to Growth study. Though the collapse is worldwide, since ours is such a large portion of the global economic pie, America will have to reverse course on buying extravagantly expensive electronic weapons systems and building the Internet of Things.

The collapse of information networks could come from EMP weapons or from financial disaster. It hardly matters in terms of the end result. In the coming decade, we should expect to lose a century or more of pervasive technological capability following civilization's first major landslide. To many, it will seem like the end of the world.

In the meantime, the choice of whether we as a people cling to the sophistication of IT while allowing other industries to crumble, is subject to the dictates of Maslow's hierarchy. Maslow's pyramidal hierarchy of needs applies to the relative wealth of society's members. Consumer electronics and ubiquitous cyber communication fit mostly into the top three categories of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. As the ranks of the middle class thins out, the aspects of electronic communication relevant to belonging and relationships will lose customers. After we collapse into industrialism, demand for high tech toys like 3-D VR bedtime story machines could continue among the elites, while the hoi polloi settle for old fashioned family time. Until then, a growing percentage of people with limited means will come to recognize that face-to-face communications with loved ones is more economical and satisfying than communicating for a fee with virtual friends and strangers.

Greer noted back in 2009 that the Information Age was on borrowed time, mainly because it would not be economically feasible in a time of diminishing resources. With the recent wikileak about the CIA's cyber snooping tools, security looks like another limiting factor. As Admiral Mike Rogers said back in 2014, we have reached a tipping point for cyber security. Electronic information of any kind is becoming less and less secure. This begins to intrude on an even more basic need in Maslow's hierarchy - security. Avoidance may be the best strategy until life becomes a degree simpler for everyone.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Bye-Bye Miss American PI (Post-Industrialism)

Back around 2011, when I first began reading The Archdruid Report, John Michael Greer detailed his outlook for America in posts about "catabolic collapse." He throws that term out often and even describes it in macroeconomic terms, but all it means is collapse that feeds on itself, just as the opposite (anabolic growth) means compounding growth caused by self-reinforcing vitality. Though Greer frames his analysis around individual civilizations, he arrives at pretty much the same place I did by drawing from the World3 (Limits to Growth) and BEST models - America eventually becomes a herder/cultivator society. He sees America's collapse starting in 1974 when the rust belt started seriously rusting, and occurring thereafter in stages wherein America devolves into a contented third world country (or several countries) as early as 2030 and continuing to decline if we ...
Fast forward another few decades, and another round of crises arrives, followed by another respite, and another round of crises, until finally peasant farmers plow their fields in sight of the crumbling ruins of our cities.
Though this collapse takes decades, it is many times faster than the centuries-long rise from wilderness settlements to superpowerdom. Greer's description doesn't distinguish between a herder/cultivator and an agrarian society (I edited my own oversight two posts back), but according to  The BEST Model (pg. 1-9), one of the distinguishing differences is that agrarians have the advantage of farming with fossil fuels and metal tools. Agrarians can still form empires, but the best herder/cultivators can do is organize groups of villages.

Perhaps schools today should be training kids on how to get by on the terms they are likely to encounter in their adulthood, but for those reading this today, let us consider the near-term implications of  the world collapsing relatively quickly from an integrative post-industrial economy with international democratic organizations to industrial economies with nationalist democracies. This is the destination Trumpist isolationism appears to favor. Soon after we have re-industrialized, more collapse will likely thrust us further down the chain so that, come 2030 or so, we may find ourselves rediscovering agrarianism under autocratic governments (Russia today) and decades later, after fossil fuels are no longer available, back in the herder/cultivator stage under familial rule.
Photo by 1nelly

Seeing as how we should expect further collapse of our post-industrial system back to a straight industrial system in the next decade, factory jobs should be prized by jobseekers. At least Trump is aiming to bring those jobs back home. Small business manufacturing is a good way to go - for the environment, cultivation of long-term relationships, and adjustment to a more fragmented nation. Employment at a factory out in the countryside might offer a chance to segue into agriculture when the factory shuts down. Ideally, living among relatives engaged in small farming or other sustainable vocations would position one for the next level of collapse to hunter/cultivator villages. Ecoforestry is ideal for this latter stage. Since all of these changes could take place over just a few decades, it will be important to have a job with enough time off to allow one to acquire the tools and skills that will enable one to live in the future as it spirals down. We are 42 years into the catabolic collapse and only have a few decades left before America begins to look like it did before the Europeans arrived.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Future Farmers of America: You and Me

If the U.S. collapses all the way back into a herder/cultivator society, that should alleviate many of the problems inherent in our food system, but it won't necessarily protect us from the ravages of climate change. But, since farming will be so popular, more people could learn climate farming. Jacke and Toensmeier, in Edible Forest Gardening, express the opinion that food forests will be essential to feeding the population, given the pressures of climate, energy, and biodiversity. +Albert Bates is writing a series that discusses climate ecoforestry, which includes agroforestry along with permaculture. The Green Party platform includes many important points on the topic of forestry, but fails to explore its vast potential for restoring the environment and creating livelihoods.
Apple tree, comfrey and currant bush guild by London Permaculture

Over the past four years, I have become minimally adept at making and using biochar, gardening, raising mushrooms, and mitigating stormwater runoff. Forest gardening is an ongoing interest. Now would be a good time to get close to communities and organizations which practice the many and expanding methods of forest restoration and permaculture. Few who aren't indentured to the powers that be will be able to find any other means by which to live.

More to come on this subject, but keeping it brief this time leaves you more time for the inspiring reads linked above.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Riding Out the Storm

The world is entering what is likely to be the most horrifying period in history. Civilization is about to collapse globally for the first time. Not that it proves anything, but has there ever been a time when so many large-scale hunger crises have occurred simultaneously? Somalia, S. Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen are just the beginning. We have a choice to help or to abandon other parts of the world as they undergo collapse. Our choice should depend on the global context.

Neil Howe would have us understand that The Fourth Turning applies not only to the United States, but to most of the civilized world. With the rise of globalism, the cycle of collective consciousness, disenchantment, destruction, and revival has taken on more synchronicity among developed nations. In foreign policy, Trump/Bannon would cede upholding liberal democratic principles to the assumption that fourth turnings will spawn nationalism around the globe. In addition to cutting foreign aid, they can't see much return in continuing our campaign to democratize the East.

Against this dismissal of relationships with emerging democracies cultivated over decades, Michael Gerson argues that abandoning those efforts would result in a renewed reliance on "spheres of influence" among the great powers to deconflict geopolitics. Gerson cites a speech by recently retired elder statesman Dan Fried who proclaimed,
A sphere of influence system would lead to cycles of rebellion and repression, and, if the past 1,000 years is any guide, lead to war between the great powers, because no power would be satisfied with its sphere. They never are.
The Green Party platform lauds the spread of grass roots democracy while also calling for less manipulative foreign relations:
We strongly feel that our country should view itself as a member of the community of nations... not above it. The United States could well play a leadership role in that community but only if we become committed to an eco-social vision of peace, national self-determination, and international cooperation... Reducing militarism and reliance on arms policies is the key to progress toward collective security.
The Green Party wants us to be less assertive not only in democratizing, but also in military coercion. Yet, wouldn't it be nice if we could maintain some continuity in our efforts to promote freedom and democracy, at least as a sign of good faith until we make it through our crisis period?

    To answer that question, let us consider the global context of what the world will be like after our crisis is over. My assertion that world civilization is headed for collapse is based on the Limits to Growth study, which, in the World3 model, shows the tipping point to collapse occurring around 2030. Assuming the rest of the world bears the brunt of whatever this collapse entails, isolationism for the U.S. would, perhaps, allow us to survive long enough for the next Spring of the secular cycle.

    This existential crisis of encountering the Age of Limits could become the focal point of America's resolve to exit the fourth turning. Trumpists are battening down the hatches and getting us set to ride out the storm.
    Photo by Frans Berkelaar
    Isolationism may be essential to surviving the coming collapse. Trump is preparing to wall us off from, not only Mexico, but from other parts of the world where we currently have military, diplomatic, and economic relations. This leverages our geographic advantage to isolate us from wars and refugees. Our advantageous geographic position insulates us from much of the turmoil of migrating hordes and resource wars. Self-preservation is a natural human tendency. Under the expectation that the rest of world's problems would overwhelm us, can anyone blame America for pulling back? Governments are expected to protect their citizens.

    If rapid global collapse occurs during this fourth turning, the "high" that follows will be like coming out of the ark after the great flood. When we emerge, the geopolitical chessboard will be completely rearranged. As for the concerns over great powers' "spheres of influence," there won't be any great powers left. Any diplomatic love shown now may be long forgotten in the light of the new day.

    Juxtapositioning the Fourth Turning concept on the Limits to Growth, as I have just done, offers the horrifying realization that the next decade may well be as close to hell on earth as the world has ever come. The Limits to Growth model does not project the depth of the collapse, e.g. in population or production. Though the graphs show the metrics past the point of collapse, the World3 model would have to be reworked at that point based on the new arrangement of civilization. That rearrangement, if we do not resolve our energy shortage, would place us three steps back into a herder/cultivator economy. If we were able to transform our energy sources and take only one or two steps back from our global information-centric world, we would retain industrialism or agrarianism  (The BEST Model pg. 1-9). We may be able to transform the energy system post-collapse, but the recovery would take immensely longer.

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