Thursday, 13 December 2012

Emergency Preparation, Part 2 – what I am doing – Bugging In

In my last post I talked in a fairly abstract way about emergency preparation, and promised that next time I'd get more specific. It has been a long time since that post. The last few months have been the busiest season for my printing and sign business and in the garden, so there just haven't been enough hours in the day. But beyond that, this is a huge subject and, I have found, quite hard to compress into a reasonable amount of space.

But it's past time that I made a start, and I'll do that now by talking about the threats that I am most concerned about and the preparations I've done and plan to do. I'll limit this discussion to the short term issues and to threats that I am actually facing personally. I live in a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron and I work at home, so my situation may well be different than yours. I don't pretend to be an expert, but I hope my thoughts on the subject may be of some help to you.

Despite long term plans to the contrary, I still own and drive a car. This is a pretty dangerous activity and liable to lead one into emergencies. Back in the summer I was involved in a collision and it brought home a few things that I hadn't been taking quite seriously enough. There isn't much use in having a cell phone for emergency use when driving if you leave it at home on the kitchen counter. And it's not much good having a nicely typed up list of one's medications and surgeries if, when you get to the hospital, you remember that you have neglected to print the list out and carry it with you.

The good news is that I survived with no more than bruises and scrapes. But it does make clear that thinking and studying about emergency preparation is not too effective if you don't actually follow through and do something about it.

Money. Practically speaking, this is very useful stuff. In the short run, having some can solve a lot of problems, even in emergencies, and there is no doubt that to be cut off from access to one's money can constitute an emergency. During my lifetime, access to the money one has in the bank (and credit from the bank) has become much easier, largely due to debit and credit cards and the ready availability of electronic transactions. Now one can live for weeks at a time without ever touching cash. But the financial system and the electronic communications systems that it relies on are a prime example of complex infrastructure that can fail.

In 2008 the world's financial system experienced extreme stress. Some banks actually failed, others tottered on the brink. Despite all the attempts since then to patch the financial systems back together, it is still in pretty rough shape. Current economic and financial troubles in Europe are enough to make anyone nervous. It seems more and more likely that they will not be successfully resolved and that a crash far worse than 2008 awaits us. If the bank you rely on fails, in the short run you aren't going to be able to access the money you have on deposit. In the long run, deposit insurance may come through and save at least some of it, but what are you going to do in the meantime?

A sufficiently large solar flare, the detonation of a nuclear weapon in the upper atmosphere, or perhaps even a clever hacker could knock out communications over large areas of the planet, wreaking havoc in the financial system. Even localized power or communications failures can stop your credit and debit cards from working.

So, cut off from savings and credit, how long will it be before you find yourself in desperate straits? Out of groceries, gasoline, other necessities of life? So I like to keep some cash on hand. For obvious reasons I'm not saying how much or where it is stashed, but it is readily available in an emergency. So far, it's only been used to buy milk during a power outage, but it is there if we need it, and at today's interest rates it wouldn't be earning much in my savings account anyway. Reserve cash is useful if one looses one's job or the monthly pension payment doesn't come through. If you are already living on a tight budget it can be hard to accumulate much cash, but you are even more likely to need it and a cash reserve (even a small one) can make a big difference when you are in a tight spot.

Bugging in. In survivalist terms, I'm planning on "bugging in" rather than "bugging out". That is, I intend to weather out most emergencies that may come along right here where I am, rather than seeking refuge elsewhere. So I'm concerned about the supply of utilities to my house and the flow of vital goods to this moderately remote town. And it seems that energy, once again, is the crucial resource – in this case electricity and transportation fuel.

Energy. Strangely, natural gas isn't available in this area, so when we built this house in 1982, we chose electric heat. I worked for the provincial electric utility and felt better about paying my own wages than someone else's, so to speak. Our house is very well insulated, the cost of power here in Ontario has stayed relatively low, and outages longer than a few hours have been very rare, so this hasn't seemed like too bad a decision. So far. But it does look like we can expect more trouble ahead, what with global warming/weirding bringing more and nastier storms our way and reduced maintenance budgets leading to more frequent equipment failures in the local grid and slower response to those failures.

To a certain extent we are well prepared for power failures. We have flashlights, candles, a Coleman lantern, a Coleman stove and catalytic tent heater and a couple of gallons of Coleman fuel on hand. We also have a carbon monoxide detector and we open a couple of windows when we use any of the Coleman appliances indoors. It's not recommended, I know, but so far there have been no problems and no hint of any carbon monoxide accumulating. I also make a point of going outdoors to refuel the Coleman appliances – we have the liquid fueled variety and that stuff is deadly flammable.

But if a power outage lasts longer than 24 hours we are actually quite vulnerable in several areas. In the winter, heating becomes a problem. In summer, and to some extent even in the winter, the food stored in our freezers is definitely at risk.

A wood stove was in the original plans for our home, but what with one thing and another, it has never happened. Currently the place where it was supposed to go is being used to store paper for the printing business, which is hardly compatible with a wood burning stove. When we wrap up the business in a few years, the stove will be among the first additions. In the meantime rather than just saving for this addition, we may actually buy a stove and chimney parts as the money becomes available and set them safely aside until they can be installed. I have a suspicion that at some point wood stoves are going to get very popular in this area and hard to find, as well.

It is probably well within my skills as an electrician to set up some solar panels and a battery bank and inverter that would supply enough power to keep food frozen in our freezers. Though from my fairly extensive experience with battery banks, I have to say I'm am not too thrilled with the prospect. They are expensive and have a distressing short lifetime. A generator is tempting, but also expensive and requires a lot of maintenance if it is to be relied on. And of course, gasoline may no be readily available during an emergency.

But there are some other less obvious impacts of a long term power outage. Beyond electrical power, the other two main utilities we rely on are water and sewers. Both are dependent on electrical power to function.

I think for most people a failure of the sewer system is pretty much unthinkable. Yet every time there is a power outage longer than an hour or so, the town sends a vacuum truck to a location about a block from us and starts sucking something out of an access port. Sewage does not flow uphill by itself and evidently it wouldn't take long for it to start backing up. I hope they keep the fuel tanks on that truck topped up and that some thought has been given to refueling it when the power is off. That is a surprising weak point in many emergency plans.

We have a bucket, a bale of peat moss, a spare toilet seat and a sheet of plywood waiting to be turned into a composting toilet, (a la Jenkins). But I really should find the time to do it when I can use a power saw, rather than cutting that plywood up by hand. Plans are available here. Note that the length of the legs may have to vary according to the height of buckets you are using. In the same vein, we keep a generous store of toilet paper on hand. There are alternatives, but no one I know personally wants to discuss them.

Water treatment and distribution is vulnerable of several fronts. Electrical power is needed to operate the treatment plant and pump water around. Supplies for the treatment plant arrive here via diesel truck on the highways, with only supply for a week or two in stock at any time. And already we have had one occasion when the lake got so rough that the particulate matter in the water overwhelmed the treatment plant and we were advised not to drink the town water without boiling it. The municipality provided bottled water free of charge, that time.

So having some water on hand and facilities to filter lake water sounds like a good idea. We have a 60 gallon water heater and I flush to once a year or so. If we loose town water pressure, we've got 60 gallons to work with. Of course, if town water becomes contaminated, the water in the heater tank will be contaminated too. So we store a couple of 5 gallon plastic carboys full of water in our basement. I also have on hand filters and parts to build a water filter similar to the Berkey or Doulton/Berkefeld ones, using a couple of food safe 5 gallon buckets, which I also have on hand. Another case where I need find a little time to put the filter together before we find ourselves in need of it.

Water can also be treated using bleach. We make a point of keeping a jug of bleach on hand. Instructions here

Food, etc. This brings me to the question of how things get to our little town. The answer is almost entirely by highway, in diesel fueled trucks. And pretty much everything is delivered on a "just-in-time" basis, with only a very few days stock kept on hand locally. Apparently this reduces inventory cost for the businesses involved, constituting a more efficient use of their money. But as always, an increase in efficiency mean a decrease in redundancy and the ability to respond to emergencies. If trucks can't reach our town for even a few days, we're in big trouble.

Here's a link to a discussion of this in more detail, including a report produced by the American Trucking Association as a warning to government officials about how bad an idea it would be to shut down truck traffic in emergencies like rioting, epidemics and so forth. In this area, I am more worried winter storms, fuel shortages or rationing and the inability of the whole system to cope with high fuel prices. Storms regularly close the highways hereabout for a few days at a time. So far the plows have always made it through (and the trucks behind them) just in time to restock the shelves of the grocery stores. But what if there is no fuel for the snowplows?

It wouldn't take much to change our current "next day delivery of anything you can dream of" to irregular delivery of the bare necessities. Trucking is currently done on a for-profit basis and as fuel prices have gone up the trucking business has become less and less profitable. This is already pushing shipping prices up, stressing a system that doesn't have a lot of slack built into it. At some point this may lead to disruptions in service like trucking strikes or enough trucking companies going out of business so that the system no longer works smoothly.

Medical supplies, food, cash and fuel are the most immediate concerns. My response is twofold: first to store enough of what we need to see us through short term emergencies and second to find and encourage local suppliers.

So, we try to keep our prescriptions filled before they run out, we have a few weeks supply of food and other household necessities in the house, we keep the car at least half full of fuel and, as mentioned earlier, we keep some cash on hand.

Food storage is an important enough concept that it deserves a little more attention. I am definitely not suggesting you order a year's supply of freeze dried emergency rations that you can leave stashed in a safe place for when they may (but hopefully won't) be needed. Aside from spending a lot on something that you hope not to use, this is a bad idea on many other levels, especially when there is a viable alternative that is a good idea on many levels. I come from a farming background – it was only a couple of generations ago that my ancestors grew most of what they ate. Each summer they grew enough to last until the next summer. Much has changed since then and now it is almost frowned upon to have more than a few days of food in the house. This strikes me as nonsense – there are all kinds of benefits to having at least a few weeks of food on hand. I am talking about "stocking what you eat and eating what you stock".

There are many benefits to this sort of food storage. Buying in bulk costs less, you can take advantage of sales and better prices on whatever is in season. Having ingredients on hand to make almost anything you might want at a moments notice is pretty convenient. It can also be thought of as an investment against rising food prices. If you buy food now that you'll need in a few months when the prices are a few percent higher, you have saved the difference, with a rate of return that is often higher than the banks are paying. A well stocked pantry provides some security against job loss or unexpected expenses. And of course it provides security in the case of emergencies which interfere with the food supply.

We started at this by keeping one extra of everything we use regularly and restocking when the last container is opened. This means we never run out of anything when the stores are closed. Then we added more when things were on sale.

This sort of food storage leads naturally to growing some of your own food and sourcing much of the rest locally and when it is in season. We are in the middle of a major agricultural area, so it seem that finding local sources of food would not be too difficult. But most of the food grown here is shipped out of the area for processing before it ends up back in our grocery stores, so this isn't as simple as it might seem. Part of the battle here is learning how to cook from "scratch", using basic ingredients as they come from the garden or farm, and having the equipment needed to process and preserve some of these ingredients yourself. More details on this in future posts.

In addition to all of this, there are some threats to the structure of our home that do concern me. Floods aren't a big worry in our present situation – we are close to the lake and there is enough slope so that water flows past us rather than accumulating. Nor are earthquakes a major concern, but tornadoes and fires are unfortunately a realistic possibility. But this leads us to the idea of actually having to "bug out" -- in some situations you can't cope by staying at home and fending for yourself, mainly because your home itself is threatened. There may be no alternative but to leave.

That, however is a subject for another post, and one that will be some ways down the road, since I am still struggling with everything that is involved in bugging out. For now, there are a few more things I'd like to say about bugging in.

Emergency response organizatiosn in both Canada and the U.S. advise us to have a battery operated radio to keep up with the progress of events during an emergency. We have one that includes a hand cranked generator as well as batteries and has a flashlight built in. AM, FM and a couple of short wave bands. I am not really too impressed with its performance, but it will bring in the local stations, and work when there is no other source of power, which is what we need.

It should be obvious by now that I am mainly concerned about fairly short term emergencies which leave our response infrastructure intact, though perhaps swamped. We are going to see more and more of these as climate change worsens and I think each time, we'll only manage to put things part way back together, leading to a continuous slow decline. But for now the official word is that you should be prepared to be on your own, without help from the authorities, for as much as 72 hours (3 days). Looking at the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, that seems ridiculously optimistic. I would say prepare for two weeks are the very least.

Let's suppose for a moment that you've just lived through a disaster, you didn't panic (too much), you found your preparations to be reasonably adequate, and now you are checking around to see what help you can be to your neighbours and your community. There is a large body of mythology, perpetuated by the mass media, about how people act during disasters. Based on that, you may be concerned about looting and other chaotic, selfish and violent anti-social behaviours, but studies of actual disasters show that the opposite is usually true – ordinary people work together with a great deal of resourcefulness and altruism to respond to the challenges they encounter.

You may have noticed that I don't seem too worried about the ravening zombie hordes that seemed to be a major preoccupation of survivalists. They do make great plot devices for apocalyptic stories, but have little basis in reality. Unless, of course, you live in an area (probably a large city) where society is already largely broken down. If that is the case, a move might be something to think about before it is too late.

Of course the effectiveness of your own response will depend on the skills you have and tools and materials you have on hand. It always shocks me to realize, after having spent most of my life around farmers, construction workers and maintenance people, that most people don't even have so much as a multi-tool in their pocket, and wouldn't know what to do with one if they did. I suppose this is rather harsh, but the good news is that good tools and information on how to use them are readily available today.

There are a great many emergencies that can easily be coped with if you have the tools and materials needed. Some of these things are so useful that you should consider carrying them with you pretty much all the time. Others you should have ready in your car and home. I would encourage everyone to become more familiar with tools and the things that can be done with them. Learning to use you hands can be very rewarding in normal circumstances and can make a huge difference when the chips are down.

Everyday carry. On my keychain is a tiny red LED flashlight, powered by a coin sized lithium cell. Very useful, although it does have a tendency to get turned on accidentally while being carried around and before long the battery is dead. In my pants pockets I carry two folding, lockback knives: a 3.75" Gerber Gator and a smaller knife with a 2" blade. The larger of these is affectionaltly known as my pocket machete – it is big enough for heavy work. The smaller is kept very sharp and used for more delicate jobs. Also in my pants pocket are kleenexes (I suffer from allergies) and a pack of dental floss. the latter is great if you have something stuck between your teeth, but also useful if you need some string.

In my jacket pocket is a multitool, a small flashlight, a loud whistle and a waterproof container of matches. My multitool is a Gerber and if I had it to do over again, I'd get a Leatherman Wave with the set of screwdriver bits that is available for it. I've looked around for for small multi-bit screwdrivers, but never found a set that was light enough to carry in a pocket.

I have small knapsack which is full of useful items that I carry on hikes and take with me on car trips out of town. This is not the classic bugout bag, in that it is pretty light on water, food and shelter. But it does contain a compass, signal mirror, fire starting supplies, rope, string, first aid supplies, a screwdriver with a selection of bits, a plastic poncho and a plastic emergency blanket, a pad of paper and some pencils and pens. Just things I don't like to be without, that help in coping with the various situations one find oneself in.

In the back of our car there is an ice scraper/snow brush, a shovel, an axe, and a box containing booster cables, windshield washer fluid, emergency candles, a couple of blankets, several cloth wipers, and some rope. And before we set out on a trip of any length we make sure to have a generous supply of water with us.

As for the tools and materials you might want to keep around the house, well, the scope is so wide that I hardly know where to start. Basic mechanical, carpentry, plumbing, electrical and gardening tools, for sure. Spare parts for things that wear out regularly. Nails, screws, glue, caulking, tape, lumber and plywood, copper and plastic pipe, plastic sheeting, tarps and so on. It all depends on your skills and ambition.

These certainly aren't authoritative lists of what you need, but I hope it will give you some ideas. You will have noted that a gun does not appear anywhere on these lists. In fact I do not own a gun and don't see the need for one. Of course, this is Canada. Maybe things really are different in the States, but even there I have to question the national obsession with firearms.

On that note, I think it is about time to wrap up this post. Below a some links to resources that I can highly recommend.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Emergency Preparation – what to do first, Part 1

In my last post I talked about how the only question that really matters is "what the heck do we do next?" Then I went on to talk about long term plans for coping with what's likely to happen over the years ahead, promising to address short term plans – "emergency perparedness" – in my next post.

So here we are. It is a plain fact that shit happens, even in completely normal "business as usual" circumstances. With climate change, resource depletion, and economic contraction coming into play, we can expect some types of disaster to happen even more frequently. Some people live a life pretty well isolated from nature, the inner workings of our infrastructure and the grittier side of society and seem to feel that planning for emergencies is like inviting them to happen. Nothing could be more foolish. My own gut feeling (and I know it doesn't really make any sense) is that if I am really well prepared, then there will likely never be an emergency to test out my preps.

It's probably best to begin with the three rules contributed by "FreeGoddess" in her comment to my post What does this all mean?:

  • The first rule is "don't panic".
  • The second rule is "be prepared for anything".
  • Third rule is "help others to do the same".

OK, so we're not supposed to panic. For the first part of my career with the electric utility here in Ontario, I was a journeyman electrician, doing maintenance work in power stations. We were called on to respond to many emergencies, but there was always a supervisor telling me what to do, so it was no big deal. Then I became a supervisor and it was my responsibility to tell my crew what to do. This, especially when the phone call came in the middle of the night, I found to be pretty unnerving. But I learned to stop, take a deep breath, collect my thoughts and try to remember what the plan was supposed to be. There was always supposed to be a plan and people to call for backup, even if we were the first responders.

It really does help to have a plan, to know who to call, to know what to do until help arrives and to have set aside whatever tools and supplies you may need in the meantime. That's were "be prepared for anything" comes in. Of course, there are things you just can't be prepared for, and other things that are so improbable that it's not worth the effort. But when you have eliminated the insurmountable and the improbable, you are left with a list that needs to be addressed. In order to come up with this list, you need to think about the place where you live and the kind of crises – natural, mechanical, personal or social – that can reasonably be expected to happen and that you need to be able to cope with. Notice that I am not differentiating between "ordinary, everyday" emergencies and "end of the world as we know it" disasters. In my view, they exist on a continuum and the mindset that helps us prepare for and cope with them is essentially the same.

I don't claim to be an expert on emergency preparations – you certainly shouldn't stake your life on my opinions. But I hope this will encourage you to do some research of your own and at least begin to take some steps in the right direction. Having said that, here are some of the ideas I have come up with after a few years of study.

Vinay Gupta, an ingenious fellow who blogs here: TheBucky-Ghandi Design Institution, talks about 6 ways to die:

  • too hot
  • too cold
  • thirst
  • hunger
  • illness
  • injury

We are protected from these hazards by essential services – both physical and social – that are provided to us by various sorts of infrastructure. If infrastructure is working right, most of us are unaware of it. But it's not magic and it is subject to failure even in the best of circumstances – I made a living for 30 plus years trying to prevent such failures and coping with them when they happened.

Gupta divides these services into three categories:

  • Shelter protects us from heat and cold. The structure in which you live insulates you from the extremes of outdoor temperatures. Air conditioning and heating system provide further protection.
  • Supply protects us from thirst and hunger.
  • Safety protects us from illness and injury. Public heath, medical system, police.

Threats to infrastructure come in several forms: natural, mechanical, social.

  • Natural threats include hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, wind storms, ice storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, floods, forest fires, solar flares, heat waves and such. But it seems to me that this is a really distorted way of looking at such things. It assumes that this planet was created as substrate for human activities, ours to use (and use up), and that when anything "out of the ordinary" happens that interferes with our activities then things are not as they were "intended" to be. If you've read the "What do I believe" section of this blog, you know that I don't buy into this idea. I don't believe this planet (or universe for that matter) was created at all, or that there is any sort of intention behind the way things work. The human race is certainly not a privileged part of this "creation", nor do we have a special role to play in it, other than whatever role we make up for ourselves. We are as much an ordinary part of nature as any other animal species. But we have spread over almost the whole planet and we have set up our civilization to rely on a certain set of ideal conditions. When real conditions vary from that ideal, we consider it to be a disaster. But really, all of these things are natural parts of the way things work on this planet. We have put ourselves in harm's way, and we shouldn't be too surprised that the results are occasionally disastrous. Many of us live in a way that is very isolated from nature, but that isolation is an illusion. So be realistic about the range of natural events that occur in the area where you live and the ways they may disrupt your life, and be prepared rather than surprised when natural "disasters" happen.
  • By mechanical threats I means the breakdown of the infrastructure equipment itself. If anyone can clue me in as to a better term for this, please do. Anything that is made by man eventually breaks down. But again, this is a distorted way of looking at things. Rather, I would say that it takes a lot of ongoing effort to keep it working. If left alone technology gradually, or sometimes catastrophically, wears out and breaks down. And the more complex a mechanism is, the more susceptible it is to breakdown. When our economy was growing, the ongoing cost of preventative maintenance, repairs and replacement was something that could be borne without too much pain. But now that growth is ending, those costs are starting to get quite painful. The tendency is to defer them, since for the moment everything is working just fine. After all, most of us are isolated from the inner workings of the infrastructure that supports us, and we'd just as soon pretend it wasn't there. We have just lived through a period when enough was being spent on maintenance that failures were rare and seen as decidedly out of the ordinary. But even during that period it was wise to be prepared for occasional interruptions of vital services, and it can only become more so in the future. So be realistic about the extent to which you do rely on such services and be prepared to get by without them until emergency crews can make repairs.
  • Social threats result from the breakdown of the "social contract", what Vinay Gupta calls "sate failure". Many people seem to be unaware that it exists, but I've always thought it was a good thing. Basically it refers to the agreement by which governments provide security and infrastructure and guarantee certain freedoms and privileges to their citizens and in return those citizens agree to pay taxes and obey the law of the land. This deal can break down from either side. Governments may welch on their promise to provide security and infrastructure. They may also restrict those freedoms and privileges which they are supposed to protect. Citizens may evade taxes and break the law. And when one side of the social contract starts to fail, it tends to put stress on the other side as well, leading to a downward spiral. The failure of security and infrastructure are our immediate concern, in an "emergency preparedness" sense. But the loss of freedoms and privileges (what some call "rights") may be an even bigger concern in the long run. In any case, it looks like in the times to come, we should be prepared for more social problems – increased criminal activity(random or organized), strikes, riots, revolutions, and wars.

So, I would strongly encourage everyone to look at their own situations in the light of these generalizations, decide services at the most vital and which threats are most pressing and start preparing for them.

This post is getting pretty long and it has taken a long time to write, so I think I'll break it off here. Next time I'll talk about the threats I'm most concerned about and the preparations I have made or plan to make.

But before I go, I'll just draw your attention briefly back to the third rule that I mentioned near the top of this post is "help others to do the same". This is really important in that it sets the kind of preparation I am into apart from the survivalist "hiding in the hills" approach. That seems to be based on the belief that disasters bring out the worst in people and the other people are likely to be one of your biggest problems in an emergency. This is part of the "disaster myth", about which I will have a lot more to say in a future post. It is hard to convince people of it, but in fact disasters bring out the best in people, and rather than behaving as helpless victims, when disaster relief finally arrives people are usually found to have already taken the initiative and started helping each other out.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

What the heck do we do next?

When my kids where younger and occasionally found themselves in what their mother referred to as a "pickle situation", I would remind them that the only question that really matters is "what the heck do we do next?" No use agonizing over how we got to this point, no use obsessing over how bad we feel about it. Time to admit that we really do want to carry on and find a way to do so.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, it should be pretty clear that I think the whole world is in a considerably worse spot than a "pickle situation". Economically, we are facing a general downward trend until our energy use balances out with the renewable energy supply, and there will be lots of crises, emergencies and disasters along the way. There are many ways to approach the subject of preparing for this, but I think it's best to start close to home and at the personal and family level. In an emergency, the rule is to first protect yourself, then help those around you. So I would recommend getting prepared right away for the kind of emergencies that are likely to happen in the area where you live and work. It's no good having a long term plan if you freeze to death in the first blizzard.

Here I'll borrow the three rules contributed by "FreeGoddess" in her comment to my last post: The first rule is 'don't panic'. The second rule is 'be prepared for anything'. Third rule is 'help others to do the same'. Each of these rules brings up a post worth of thoughts that I'll be sharing with you soon. But definitely, you should apply these rules to everything I am recommending below. And one more borrowed rule (from Sharon Astyk) – the "Rule of Anyway", is that your preparations, both short and long term, should still leave you in a good or better situation, even if things don't turn out as bad as we expect. They should be things that you'd want to do anyway.

There is lots of good information on the internet about emergency preparation. Unfortunately much of it is posted by survivalists, who's attitude doesn't sit well with me. The good news, though, is that if approached in the right way, preparation for short term emergencies leads naturally into long term preparations. I'll devote my next post to that subject.

Before I get into what I think our long term preparations should be, there are a few things that I think you shouldn't waste time on.

It is important to understand that the situation we are in is what some people (notably John Michael Greer) refer to as a "predicament rather than a problem". The distinction they are making is that a problem is something you solve, while a predicament has no solution – it is a situation you just have to cope with as best you can.

If you are driving down the road in your car and have a flat tire, you have a problem. It can be solved by changing the tire, and then you can continue on your way, perhaps even driving a little faster to make up for lost time. All that has changed is the tire, and even it looks much like the old one. The idea that you have important places to go and people to see, and that your car is the way to get there, hasn't changed.

If, on the other hand, you commute to your job and the price of gasoline goes up significantly and there are shortages and on some days none of the local service stations even has any gas, then this is a predicament. You may be able to adapt to it, but your life is going to look different afterwards. And bear in mind that if the price of fuel is a problem for you, it's highly unlikely that you can afford a hybrid or electric car. If you are very lucky you may find an affordable older economy car that gets significantly better mileage than what you're driving now, or you may be able to telecommute – do part of you job at home and reduce the number of days you have to drive to work. More likely you will start car pooling, take public transit, bicycle or walk to work. You might move closer to work or take a job closer to home. If you aren't the only wage earner in your family, you may decide that it's actually costing you more to work than it's worth, that you would be better employed at home in the "informal economy".

So, beware of any suggested course of action that promises to "solve" our problems without calling for any changes in the things we are doing that are causing those problems.

I am also unimpressed with the sort of activism where people go out and protest against various environmental problems, and then think they can continue on with a clear conscience, still doing the very things that are causing those same problems. We are all part of and dependent upon our present system, bad as it is, and we shouldn't be too quick to tear down. At least not until we've made a start at building something to replace it. Having just had a run in with some of our local activists, I have more to say on this, which I'll be putting in another post soon.

And lastly, if you've come here for investment advice, I'm going to disappoint you. Wealth is a claim on someone's future productivity. I can't think of any investment that is certain to be able to maintain that claim, even assuming that the future productivity you've laid a claim to is going to live up to your expectations. This includes precious metals. It is a good idea to not to take on any new debt and very likely a good idea to pay it off what debt you have, once you've spent a few vital dollars on short term emergency preps.

Well, maybe just a little bit of investment advice: when the price of food is going up quickly you could buy storable food (that you will need anyway) now, rather than later when it will cost more. There have been periods in the last few years when this would have given pretty much the best return of anything you could invest in at the time. And storing food is a basic part of emergency preparation. But really, we got ourselves into this mess by being altogether too ready to spend money on stuff, so approach the idea of "what do I need to buy to solve this problem" with extreme caution. Skills and knowledge, on the other hand, are investments more of time and effort than money. They are light to carry, and you are more likely to use them than lose them in a disaster.

As we move deeper into the age of scarcity, it looks like we are all going to encounter economic difficulties and in that realization lies the key to effective long term preparation. The game is rigged against us. The thing to do is get out of that game, to whatever extent you can.

Unfortunately, most of us feel a huge pressure to maintain or improve our situation in the "business as usual" world, whatever it takes. For the last few decades that has meant borrowing against our future productivity in ways that seemed likely to enhance that productivity. For those of us not born into wealth, the "game" has gone roughly like this: borrow money to get an education and then get a good job with prospects for advancement. Borrow money to buy a car so you can drive to your job, if you didn't already get one to drive to school. Borrow money to buy a house, more as an investment than a place to live. Plan to pay everything off before you retire, pay into the company pension plan so you'll be able to retire, and make good investments to add to that pension. In the meantime, compensate for a job that you've found you really don't like all that much by buying all the latest toys, taking up expensive hobbies and travelling during your vacations.

There have always been those who pointed out flaws in this plan, even when it was working well – one gets locked into a rut, the job takes you way from your family, and in any case provides a limited degree of fulfillment. But even if you are currently a willing participant in this game, you have probably noticed that it isn't going too well in various ways, depending on your age. University tuition has gone up considerably and jobs prospects for successful graduates are poor. The price of a car and the cost of operating it, especially fuel and insurance, are becoming prohibitive. For those with jobs, job security, benefits and regular raises are all a much more doubtful proposition than they once were. Houses aren't proving to be the investment that they once appeared to be. Retirement recedes into the future as the cost of living goes up and return on investments go down. For those of us who have managed to retire, increasing costs of necessities are making once generous pensions look barely adequate. And pension funds that once looked rock solid now seem pretty shaky, with the possibility of pension cuts looming ahead of us.

The temptation is to continue on as usual at all costs, hoping that things will straighten out soon. Dmitry Orlov refers to the trio of car, job and house as the "iron triangle" – the surest way of locking oneself into the "business as usual" world and going down with it as it falls. Poverty bears an immense stigma in our culture and we are very reluctant to look or act "poor", even if that is the surest way to avoid becoming really poor. But a good piece of advice for a man who finds himself in a hole is to stop digging before you make it even deeper. The age of growth and progress is over and we are entering the age of scarcity. There is no remedy for that and it's time to start adapting to the new situation, rather than denying it exists.

So, the thing is to realistically access your situation in the light of this and admitting that it is likely to get worse, take steps that will allow you to cope. Having done that, you will find yourself living some years ahead of the curve -- living as you would have been forced to do anyway, eventually. But you'll be making the changes at your own pace, while you still have some money left to finance things like emergency preparation, setting up a garden, insulating and sealing your house, installing a woodstove, a solar water heater and so forth. A few years down the road, others will find themselves forced to make the same sort of changes to their lifestyles, but not willingly, almost certainly not happily and with far fewer resources at their disposal. And if things don't go as badly as I am predicting, you'll have your debts paid off, money in the bank, and you'll be accustomed to living frugally, so that whatever your circumstances, you'll feel like you are doing better than most of the people around you because you have more realistic expectations.

All this is sometimes referred to as voluntary simplicity or voluntary poverty. But all of these terms carry certain misleading connotations, so rather than trying to name what I am talking about, I'd like to go on talking about it in enough detail to make it clear what I really mean. Unfortunately, I just spent the last two weeks trying to write up some specifics of how one might actually "get out of the game". But there is material enough to fill a book (or several) and it is not the kind of stuff that will condense into single paragraph chunks without losing a great deal. So I think that instead of continuing now, I'll do a series of posts about various aspects of this subject, giving each enough attention to do it justice.

Before doing that, though, I'll be devoting my next post (as promised above) to emergency preparations.

Friday, 30 March 2012

What does all this mean?

If you've read all of my posts so far, you may be wondering where I am going with all this. In this post, I will attempt to briefly answer that question. The details, of course, are material for many future posts.

When I first heard of Peak Oil, around the turn of the century, the people talking about it were either petroleum geologists or survivalists types. The declining side of the oil consumption curve was seen to be very steep and our trip down it would end with a crash at the bottom. Prudent people would be prepared, which meant having lots of canned food and ammunition stored in a hole in your backyard. If you've seen the movie "Mad Max" and it's sequels, you get the picture. And of course there were technophiles responding to these concerns, who were sure we could invent our way out of the situation, and end up living in a "Star Trek" like future, no problem.

In the decade or so since then, a lot of subtlety has been added to the Peak Oil discussion. And a good thing, too.

I was originally torn between the "technology will save us" and the "we'd better prepare for the worst" camps, but now I have realized there are a range of possibilities between the two extremes that are much more likely than the extremes themselves. The unlikelihood of the extremes is worthy of quite a bit of discussion in itself, but I'm going to leave that for another day. Today, let's consider what are now seen as some of the more likely developments that lie ahead of us. We are now entering the "age of scarcity" and the general shape of what lies ahead is not that hard to see.

Since most of us are still living in the "business as usual" world and our main interface with reality is the economy, let's consider that first. Energy, especially crude oil, is the key resource that drives our economy and one would expect the economy to follow a curve somewhat like the oil use curve, since the amount of oil being used is a strong predictor of the level of economic activity. Specifically, in order for the economy to grow, the amount of oil being use must grow and the price of that oil must not increase significantly. Remember that our economy must grow in order to function properly. That is, if growth decreases, the economy becomes less effective at providing the necessities of life to the people who are relying upon it, businesses become less profitable and unemployment increases.

The classic curve that Peak Oil enthusiasts draw is smooth going up and smooth going down, which makes it easy to sketch if drawing on a blackboard, but glosses over some of the realities of the situation. More accurate depictions of this curve are very rough on the left hand (growth) side, since that part of the curve is based on history, and the history of this had lots of ups and downs. In the years since the second world war, there have been numerous recessions and most of them have been preceded by a spike in the price of oil and accompanied by a temporary reduction in the rate at which oil was being used. We are now at the peak of the curve which, it turns out, is more like a bumpy plateau. There is no reason to believe that the declining side of the curve will be any different. We will move down in fits and starts, with level spots and even minor recoveries in between.

It is interesting to look at the last few years to see how this works. We can start in the summer of 2008. The economic recovery that followed the .com crash and housing bubble in the US were still going strong and oil use was on the upswing. But for the first time demand really was outstripping supply. Conventional oil had peaked in 2005 and the non-conventional oil that was being added to the mix to keep up with demand was more expensive. The price of oil increased, reaching a peak of $147 per barrel late in the summer of 2008. What followed was a financial meltdown and the bursting of the American housing bubble. Conventional economists, politicians and most everyone in the media were taken by surprise and have since blamed problems in the financial system and lenders who where giving mortgages to people who really couldn't afford them. No doubt all that is to some extent true, but it would not have come to a head without the oil connection. Energy is the pump that enables market bubbles to grow. When the pump falters, the bubble bursts.

Since then, despite what the politicians would have us believe, we have been in an economic depression. There have been periods of partial recover, but as the economy starts to take off and the demand for energy goes up again, the price of oil goes up too, causing the economy to stall again. I am no rocket scientist, but it's not hard to imagine this pattern continuing and the depression deepening as the supply of oil continues to decline. Note that bringing more sources of expensive oil on line isn't going to help.

So, I am predicting a bumpy decline on the falling side of the oil supply curve. Economic activity and energy use will fall off until we are using somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the amount of energy we are using now, an amount that can be supplied by renewable sources. At which point we could, ideally, make a soft landing. But that's only if the fabric of our system can hold together under this continuing abuse and if nothing more unpleasant happens.

All this is a little abstract, perhaps, so lets talk in terms that area little more personal. When the price of energy increases, everyone's expenses go up. This makes businesses less profitable, even if demand for their products stays high. But it also means that individuals have less discretionary income (since we are paying more for energy too), so we spend less, especially on things that aren't necessities. And this means that demand goes down for most products. Business are faced with increased costs and falling sales. The weak ones close, the stronger ones downsize. People lose their jobs and spend even less money and demand goes down even more. Governments find themselves with lower tax revenues and increased demand on social support mechanisms. Government programs are cut back in response and government workers laid off. And so it goes in a downward spiral, with occasional pauses during temporary recoveries and bone jarring drops when those recoveries fail. As inevitable as all this may be, it is very difficult to predict when any specific event will happen, which makes it even more difficult to cope with the process.

Of course we have had deflationary spirals before, usually caused by overproduction and/or the bursting of speculative bubbles in the market. But for the past century or so oil was there as an enabling resource to get things going again, especially with a little help from governments who are willing to borrow/print money and spend it in ways that stimulate the economy. A whole lot of that is being done in an attempt to halt the current deflationary spiral, with disappointing results. Some economists are concerned that pouring all this money into the economy will result in inflation or perhaps even hyper inflation. But much of the money is being used to bail out banks who are suffering from all the loans that business and individuals are defaulting on. That government money never gets into the economy, since it is only used to bring the banks balance sheets back up to zero. I don't think we are going to have inflation in the classical sense of too much money (credit) chasing too few goods and causing prices and interest rates to go up. But inflation in the sense of price increases because of supply not being able to satisfy demand, will happen. And necessities like energy, and food and transportation which are largely based on energy, will definitely see price increases. While anything which is not a necessity will see falling demand and stagnant or falling prices.

We are also going to see a continued decline of other resources, particularly potable water, strategic metals, forests and fisheries. All with similar effects on the economy to those caused by the decline in energy supplies.

Our business as usually system uses "rationing by price" to cope with supply shortages. This works, but it is hard on those with less income. Since more people are experiencing falling incomes all the time, we'll see more protests along the line of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The 99% are going to get even more upset with the 1%, and no doubt there will be increased civil unrest, rioting and so forth as a result.

But perhaps that's enough about the economy. A few paragraphs back I used the phrase "if nothing more unpleasant happens". And there are a number of unpleasant things that fall in the "pretty darn likely" category.

As the economy goes downhill and tax revenues fall, we're going to we less and less spent on infrastructure. So we can expect to see problems with infrastructure and interruption that are more frequent and longer. Electricity and water supply, sewers, communications system, roads and bridges, railways -- all will suffer.

War another possibility. A great way to keep your munitions from going stale, it has little else to recommend it in my opinion. Many recent wars and some still ongoing, have to do with the US trying to maintain its empire and guarantee its access to resources, such as oil in the Middle East. As well, Middle Eastern countries have been having revolutions when their people get sick of corrupt governments and worsening conditions. The revolution in Libya (spring 2011) cut off that country's oil production, about 1.6 million barrels per day, which resulted in a big spike in the price of oil. This spring, concerns about conflict involving Iran have forced the price of oil up over $100 per barrel and kept it there. No doubt we'll see more of this.

Of course, as oil becomes more expensive and scarces, it's going to get harder to run a machine like the American military, especially when it doesn't seem to be achieving its goals. How long before there are serious cutbacks in the American military budget? Hopefully before they are forced shut down operations and leave personnel stranded overseas.

Then there are all problems due to climate change: erratic and extreme weather, reductions of glaciers and ice sheets, rising sea level, ocean acidification, growing deserts. Present agricultural practices be they industrial or organic, rely to a frightening extent on just the right type of weather. Many areas rely on water stored in glaciers or winter snow cover at high altitudes for their water supply. And so many people live within a few feet of sea level and will become refugees as sea level rises. And it doesn't take several feet of rise, just a few inches in many cases when you add in storm surges, to render large areas near sea level uninhabitable.

In the few years still left while air travel is accessible to the majority of the population, epidemics are a significant concern. Especially with declining public health budgets and weakened health care systems.

And then there are solar flares, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. None of these things are in our control, but they can do a lot of damage to a civilization that is growing ever more fragile.

A growing awareness of all this can be pretty frightening. Once you get past the initial temptation to deny it all, what I hope remains is a desire to prepare for the trouble ahead. The only question you ever really have to answer is "what he heck do we do next?" I'll address that question in my next post.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Economic Contraction

For a long time I struggled to understand economics. I read many different economists and none of them seemed to quite make sense. Only during the last few years, as part of my studies of Peak Oil, did I come to a more satisfying understanding of money, wealth and the economy.

Money is a symbol for wealth, a unit of exchange, a store of value. And it is certainly useful enough when playing those roles. But more important, in our credit based financial system, money is debt. Banks create money when they loan it out. People take out loans based on the belief that their earning power, their "future productivity" will allow them to pay the loan back and with interest. But this can only happen as long as the economy is growing.

In the past, money has often been based on rare precious metals like gold and silver. In order for the money supply to grow, more precious metals had to be dug out of the ground. Many people look back to that system as the good old days and would like to see a return to it, citing the many problems with our credit based system. But we changed to a credit based system because our economy was growing, the money supply needed to grow with it and basing money on rare metals doesn't allow for this.

Wealth is not the same thing as money. The possession of valuable things is often viewed as wealth: precious metals, land, stock and bonds, etc. But I would say that all of these things are only symbols for wealth. What wealth really consists of is having a claim on future productivity, yours or that of someone who has an obligation to you. It's easy to see how this might be so with money or financial instruments like stocks and bonds, which are obviously symbolic, and clearly consist of a claim on the future productivity of a company or country. But consider gold – it does have some industrial uses based on its high electrical conductivity and its resistance to corrosion. But you can't eat it, wear it or heat your house with it and if food or other essentials of life are in short supply, you may not be able to find anyone who is willing to trade their essentials for your gold. If you are stockpiling gold at the moment, it is probably because you have some doubts about the future state of the economy. But I would say that the economy has already ceased to grow, and is beginning to contract. At some point in the future, then there may not actually be goods available to trade for your gold, definitely not the quantity and variety of goods that we are currently accustomed to. The same with land – they aren't making any more and as long as the population and the economy are growing, the value of land should increase. But only if growth continues. In a shrinking economy even productive farmland is wealth only if you can actually farm it and there is someone to buy what you grow.

But what is this thing we call the economy, anyway?

I gather conventional economists would have you believe that the economy is something the people function inside of. Relations between people are mediated in economic terms – in term of money, in other words. Only the most basic relationship between husband and wife, between parent and child are not monetized. And when we come to alimony and child support, even that is not so. We buy our food, rather than grow it. We rent or buy our dwelling place instead of building it. We buy the fuel to heat it instead instead of gathering it. Even our contact with nature is monetized – we pay to travel to a place where nature has been preserved, pay a guide to show us through it, pay for souvenirs to take home with us.

In this view of things, the environment exists off to one side, a supply of energy and material resources and a convenient place to dump our garbage and pollution. And it is for all practical purposes infinite. Or if something does run out, a substitute can always be found to replace it. The critical resource is human ingenuity, applied through technology, which is without limits.

The picture of the economy that I would draw is quite different. The economy exists entirely within human society and is only one of many ways that people may choose to relate with one another. Human society exists entirely within the environment and is entirely dependent on it. And the environment is finite – we are for practical purposes limited to one small planet. The critical resource that has driven economic growth for the last few generations is energy, derived from fossil fuels, for which there is no workable substitute. If that growth is to continue, we must have an every increasing supply of fossil fuels, but we have already reached the maximum rate at which oil can be pumped out of the ground (Peak Oil) and our economy has stalled and will soon start to contract, if it is not already doing so.

The real problem with this is that no one seems to have any idea of how to run an economy that is contracting. No clue of how best to minimize the amount of pain and grief that it seems must ensue. I certainly don't but I expect there is going to be lots of opportunity to learn the hard way over the next few decades.

Growth and Depletion

Let me be clear about the kind of growth I am talking about here -- growth in the burden that a human society places on its environment. This increase may happen due to an increase in population or due to increases in the rate of consumption by the members of that population or a combination of both.

In our modern world it is very to easy lose sight of the fact, but all human societies are completely dependent on the natural environment for the necessities of life -- air, water, food, the raw materials from which we build our machines and the energy which runs them. That environment is finite in size and has a limited carrying capacity. Material resources in convenient forms exist in finite amounts and when "used up" they tend to be converted to forms that are no longer useful and in many cases are downright harmful to both us and the environment. Energy flows into ecosystems in the form of sunlight and is converted into wind, falling water and biomass, but the rate at which that energy flows is fixed. By tapping into various forms of stored energy we can temporarily access energy at rates greater than the rate of solar influx, but like any other material resource, when those resources are used up, they are gone. (Yes, I am ignoring deep geothermal and tidal energy but that's a discussion for another day).

It also seems that human societies have a tendency to grow until they come face to face with the limits of their environments. In pre-industrial societies food and firewood were frequently the limits first encountered, as forests were cut down and agricultural soils were depleted by erosion, salination or simple depletion of nutrients.

We know very little about pre-agricultural societies but it is a suspicious coincidence that many species of large animal went extinct around the same time that our ancestors became really good at hunting... Of course, hunter-gatherer populations were so small in relation to the environment as a whole, that in many cases when one area was depleted, they could simply move on to another.

Agricultural societies are for the most part sedentary and when they run into the limits of the land they occupy, the results tend to be more ugly. When agricultural societies are successful, they grow and eventually they do deplete the resources on which their success is based. Very rarely has an agricultural society lasted in one location for an extended period of time. Read books like Jared Diamond's Collapse, Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies or Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress, for more on this theme.

Why is this so? Why does resource depletion sneak up on growing societies and catch them unaware?

I think at least part of the answer is to be found in mathematics, in the shape of the curve that growth follows. The sort of growth we are talking about, growth in populations of living organism, is exponential. That is, a population grows as percentage of its current size. Growth starts out slow -- the curve stays almost level for a long time. Then it reaches a "knee" where it starts to turn more rapidly upward and soon it turns almost vertically upward, growing at a rate that no finite container can accommodate. So of course what happens is that as the resources that were sustaining the growth are depleted, growth decreases. Often the resources have been depleted to the point where they cannot support the current population. This situation is known as "overshoot", and sadly, it is followed by "dieoff", where some portion of the population does not survive and numbers decrease to the level which the depleted environment can support. This situation always seems to come as a surprise to those who are living it. Everything has been going along just fine and as we edge onto the knee of the graph, it seems to going even better. Growth in the population, and in the standard of living for at least some of its members, seems like an achievement, a goal that they have been striving for and more could only be better. Very shortly, this is proven to be wrong. It is the sudden change from times of plenty to collapse, as a result of resource depletion due to exponential growth in a finite system, that always seems to come as a surprise.

For the last couple of centuries our western society and more recently most of the world has been in a unique situation. We have tapped into the stored energy of fossil fuels, not just as a source of heat, but also a source of mechanical power to replace human and animal muscle power. This has enabled huge growth in our population and in our standard of living.

Peat and coal had been used to a small extent as heating fuels for many years, but came into greater prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the twentieth century oil and natural gas took over as our primary sources of energy. Oil is a particularly unique resource. It is a concentrated source of energy, and as a liquid, quite easy to move around and to store. Early in the history of its use, oil was to be found near the surface and often under pressure, so getting it out of the ground was easy. The EROI (energy returned over energy invested was high -- as much as 100 barrels of oil could be had for an energy investment equivalent to only one barrel of oil. And early in its history the rate of discovery had no trouble keeping up to or exceeding the growing demand, so it was easy to think of oil as an essentially infinite resource. I don't think anyone really thought of the oil supply as literally infinite but the prospect of it running out was so far in the future that there was no point in worrying about it at the present. There was ample time for future generations to find a replacement. That kind of thinking has a way of catching up with us, though.

Even today one sees naive calculations that there is enough oil left to last us 20, 30, even 40 or more years. And for many people, that is equivalent to saying that there is lots left and someone in the future can worry about what to do when it runs out. But calculating when oil supply is going to be a problem is not as simple as dividing the known reserves by the rate of annual use and coming up with a number of years.

Say your car gets 40 miles to the gallon and your gas tank has 10 gallons in it. You should be able continue cruising merrily along, for the next 400 miles, right? This is because your car's fuel line and fuel pump have been designed to always be able to keep up with the rate at which the car's engine uses fuel. There is never any worry that you might not be able to get fuel to the engine fast enough, right up until the moment before the gas tank eventually runs dry. Unfortunately, oil wells don't work like that.

An oil well does not tap into some pressurized underground tank of oil, but rather drills down until it reaches porous rock that is saturated with oil, often under pressure because of the weight of rock above it. The output from a single oil well rises quickly once you "strike oil", then levels off at some maximum rate and finally begins to decline.

Add together the production rates of all the wells in an oil field, or country or in the world and you get the classic Hubbert curve. This diagram came from The Peak Oil Primer at the Energy Bulletin website. It's well worth reading that page, if for no other reason than I am not going to go over the basics of the subject here.

It is interesting to note the similarity of the Hubbert Curve to the exponential growth curve I was talking about. The same sort of surprise is built into it -- we're just beginning to get going really well, then we reach the top of the curve and the bottom falls out from under us. And note that, in the case of oil, this happens when roughly half of the oil is still in the ground. It is not the amount that's that left in the ground that counts, but the rate at which we can pump it out of the ground and how much it costs, both in terms of dollars and energy, to do so.

Our society's continued well being is based on economic growth. That growth is driven by the ready availability of cheap energy in convenient forms -- mainly oil. Around 85 million barrels a day of oil as things stand at the moment (February 2012). It is interesting to note that that number has not grown for the last five years. And during those years our economy has been essentially stalled. The oil supply has become "in-eleastic". That is, demand goes up, the price of oil increases, but the supply does not increase. In fact, when the price of oil increases, the economy actually slows down and demand decreases to match the available supply. If you delve a little deeper into Peak Oil theory, you will find that the peak of the curve is more like a "bumpy plateau". It's pretty clear that we have been travelling along that plateau for several years now. What remains to be seen is when we will start down the declining side of the curve. Very likely the smooth decline portrayed on the graph is a convenient fiction which makes the curve easier to draw. I expect the right hand side of the curve will be more like a set of uneven stair steps, periods of sudden decline mixed in with periods when things go along fairly smoothly for a while.

Most of us will feel the effect of declining energy supplies through the economy, which is our main interface with reality. But it is also interesting to consider the pervading role that fossil fuels play in our day to day lives.

If you're uncertain how much we rely on fossil fuels, then just reach out and pick up an object that's sitting in front of you. Now consider the role that fossil fuels played in bringing that object to you. If it wasn't made locally using local materials, then the odds are that it's story is saturated with oil, natural gas and/or coal.

I gather many people pretty much take for granted all the manufactured articles around them, and in a typical urban environment, that's pretty much everything around them. I've always had a keen interest in where things come from and how they are made, so the exercise suggested above really resonates for me. Let's just consider a few categories of things.

The first thing, I guess, and quite obviously, is transportation – moving things and people from one place to another. This is the obvious one. Our modes of transportation are almost all fueled by oil in one refined form or another, be it diesel oil, gasoline, jet fuel, bunker oil for ships. Transportation has become very important in two ways:

One: over the last few decades we have globalized and thing tend to be made far form where they are used. Looking around me at the moment I don't see anything that was made locally from local materials, even if you stretch "locally" to mean within a hundred miles. Much of the stuff in this room was made in the Far East, half way around the world, just about as far away as it is possible to go and stay on the planet.

Two: while I am retired and run a business out of my home, for most of my life I drove about 10 miles to work (one way). This is a very short commute. Most people drive much further to work each day.

With things arranged like this, it's hard to reduce our dependency on oil for transportation. The infrastructure needed to produce consumer goods has largely been moved out of Europe and North America. Setting it up again would be a big job. Our cities have been set up to separate work spaces and living spaces and we haven't even begun to change this. Telecommuting sounds like a great idea, but it's not available or practical for most jobs.

There are many other obvious ones: home heating fuel, lubricants, asphalt and plastics among them. But then there are some that aren't quite so obvious...

Fossil fuels play a major role in the production of our food today. This is not really evident to most of us, I think. Food comes form grocery stores, materializes on the shelves sometime in the middle of the night, right? Not. Most people in the world are fed by an industrial farming system that is critically dependent on fossil fuels. About seven calories of fossil fuel energy is needed to produce 1 calorie of food. Manual and animal labour has been replaced where ever possible by machines fueled by diesel oil or gasoline. The recycling of nutrients in plant, animal and human waste has been replaced by an open-ended system dependent on huge quantities of the three primary plant nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. The minerals phosphorous and potassium are mined and transported to the farm using fossil fuels. Nitrogen makes of 78% of our atmosphere, but to convert it into a form which is useful as a plant nutrient requires lots of pressure and heat, supplied by natural gas. The pesticides that are so integral to the process of industrial farming are also made from oil. And once the food leaves the farm it usually travels hundreds if not thousands of miles to get to us, in ships, trains, trucks and planes fuels by oil. Often, food is refrigerated the whole way from the field to your table, an incredible energy intensively process and mainly dependent of fossil fuels.

The manufacture of many goods requires large quantities of heat, which is provided by fossils fuels. Metals, concrete, glass, plaster and drywall are just a few that come quickly to mind, even though none of them seem particularly oily.

The internet, which is all about data, would seem to be exempt from this voracious appetite for energy, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is estimated to consume between 1 and 2% of all the energy used in the world.

No doubt I have missed a lot of important, even critical things, but I think this gives you the general idea. Our modern society is dependent on oil and there is no cheap and effective substitute anywhere in sight.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Environmental Degradation

In my last post I talked about the effect a growing human society has on the natural resources which are vital to its survival. For some reason Blogger wants to list this post ahead of that one, but it will make a lot more sense if you read the post on Growth and Depletion first.

The other side of the coin when it comes to depletion of natural resources is the degradation of the environment that accompanies that depletion. To me, our industrial society seems like a highly successful scheme for converting natural resources into pollution. We are told that this is necessary in order to maintain our "lifestyle" which is, as some would have it, "not negotiable".

But in reality we are completely dependent on the natural environment for the necessities of life. As that environment degrades, our lives and the continued survival of our species is placed in jeopardy. The choice is not between us or the environment, but between us and the environment – or nothing. In North America, perhaps more than anywhere else today, most people are living in denial of this fact.

The environment is suffering in many ways, but for a person like me, who approached this subject via the idea of Peak Oil, the one at the top of the list has to be climate change. Unfortunately, opinions on climate change have become so polarized that it is almost impossible to have an intelligent discussion. Actually, I should say anthropogenic climate change -- climate change caused by human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels which releases huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is the heart of the argument -- that our highly "carbonized" lifestyle is causing climate change and we are already beginning to suffer some pretty serious consequences, with more to come. The obvious conclusion is that we need to change, to stop releasing so much CO2 into the atmosphere. Many are unwilling to even consider change and this includes some pretty powerful concerns with a vested interest in "business as usual". In my opinion all the arguments against anthropogenic climate change boil down to one simple statement: "if it's true, then we'd have to change". If change is unthinkable, that is a pretty powerful argument. And a lot of money has been spent to make that argument over the past decade.

On the other side of the argument are scientists, trying to have a scientific discussion with a populous that doesn't for the most part understand science. It has not been going well, nor do I expect that it will until the process of climate change has gone so far that it is impossible to ignore. At that point it will be getting very late to stop and reverse the process. But for anyone who is at all interested, there is an excellent article in Skeptic magazine: How We Know Global Warming is Real and Human Caused. Skeptic takes great delight in ridiculing pseudoscience. If they are supporting a theory, then maybe there is something to it after all.

Personally, I think there is a flaw in the idea that change is unthinkable. For at least the last few centuries, we've seen nothing but change – it has been the only constant. We've called it progress, and it has become our religion. Many of us, myself included sometimes, are tired of change, or at least of changes that don't really make things better. We are assuming that the changes it would take to wean us off fossil fuels would inevitably lead to a lower quality of life. I would suggest that the direction we are headed, by pursuing "business as usual" is anything but positive, that the changes we need to make to save the environment and stop Peak Oil from causing a complete disaster, may actually be positive changes and turn your world and mine into a better place to live. I'll have more to say on this a few posts down the road, but keep it in mind.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A Fundamental Change

Time to get down to business here. What's this blog about anyway?

In my first post I explained the title, which is from a quote by Richard Feynman: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." Feynman was talking about scientists pursuing their careers, but I mean this in the sense of understand the world so as to be able to effectively live one's everyday life.
In my second post I explained the "Reality Based" part of the subtitle. It is so important to use critical thinking and skepticism to come to know the world, rather than giving in to credulity and just believing what feels nice.

Today and in the next few posts, I'll explain what I mean by "the age of scarcity".

Let me start with a little background.

I was born in 1954. When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in July of 1969, I was 15 years old. I was a keen student, interested in science and math, an avid reader of science fiction and aiming for a career in engineering. Like most everyone else at the time, I believed in progress and it sure looked like the sky was the limit. We had the world (if not the universe) by the tail and were in for a great ride. Mankind's ingenuity, expressed in technology, was going to solve all our problems. Nature seemed like a chancy sort of mistress -- it was best to get off this planet and establish ourselves in a man made environment that would be under our control and serve us better than nature ever had. Progress had been continuous since the Enlightenment and since it was based on human cleverness, rather than anything in the material world, there was no reason it couldn't continue forever. Or so we thought.

Looking back on this from 40 years later, it seems that we went astray somewhere. I've been researching this for some time now and it seems that things weren't quite as they seemed in 1969 and since then they have changed in a fundamental and most disturbing way.

If you had asked me in 1969 or perhaps a few years later, what had enabled the long run of progress that started in the Western World with the Renaissance and continued through the Enlightenment and on into the present, I would have said that it was a revolution in thinking. We began to question the muddled beliefs that came to us from the Classical era and the Church, to apply critical thinking and the scientific method to expand our understanding of the world and our mastery over it. And the idea that there might be any limits to this process of progress seemed bizarre. Challenges to overcome, but fundamental limits to progress, no.

My thinking on this has changed in the intervening 40 years. I have no doubt that a "revolution in thinking" was the spark that touched off the last few hundred years of progress. But the spark occurred in a unique environment which supported progress in a way that had never happened before in mankind's history and may never be able to happen again.

The first thing was the discovery of the new world, which provided wealth, room to grow and access to more natural resources. The second was the harnessing of fossil fuels to augment and eventually supplant the renewable energy sources that had driven the world up to that point. The modern world got off to a nice start on renewable energy, primarily indirect forms of solar energy -- muscle power (human and animal), biomass (mainly wood), wind and water power. The limits of these sorts were energy were beginning to be felt and progress might have fizzled out in the West, but for the growth in the use of coal and with the invention of the steam engine, a way to use coal not just for heating but also to turn heat into mechanical power to replace muscle power. In the early twentieth century oil, an even more convenient fuel than coal, came into prominence and began to power the engines of progress. We quickly built a civilization based on growth, driven by using ever increasing amounts of oil which, at the time, seemed like a practically infinite resource.

It seems counter intuitive to most people that energy is the engine which drives economic growth -- we have been told so often by economists that there are no limits to economic growth, that replacements can always be found for any resource that is running out. But this is largely wishful thinking -- many resources have no replacement that is economically viable.

During my lifetime our world has gone through a fundamental change from a growing, progressing civilization powered by what seemed like practically infinite supplies of energy to one where growth and progress are grinding to a halt, limited by the depletion of those vital energy resources. We have entered the "age of scarcity". The majority of the population is convinced the current "recession" is just a bump in the road and thing will soon be back to normal, but I say that they are the ones who have been fooled.

In the next few posts I'll talk about resource depletion, environmental degradation and economic contraction. And while I am not going to pull any punches about how serious these three intertwined problems are, I'll also talk about what I think can be done and the real meaning of hope in this context.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Reality is...

Another quote, this time from science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick: "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." This is from a speech given in 1978, entitled "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later". By all means read the whole thing, at http://deoxy.org/pkd_how2build.htm, but here is an excerpt that put the quotation more in context:

It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question "What is reality?", to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." That's all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven't been able to define reality any more lucidly.
But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener. Sometimes when I watch my eleven-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it's all misunderstood. And the thing is, Just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality? What about the cop shows? Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win. Do not ignore that point: The police always win. What a lesson that is. You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose. The message here is, Be passive. And—cooperate. If Officer Baretta asks you for information, give it to him, because Officer Beratta is a good man and to be trusted. He loves you, and you should love him.
So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power.

So Dick was talking about how people who create pseudo-realities, which give them power over us, but only if we believe in them. We do have the choice not to believe, although it can be easy to loose sight of that.

Now I have some rather odd personal definitions of words like "belief". Somewhat different from what you will find in the dictionary, but very useful, I think, in thinking clearly about this subject.

Truth: what other people want you to believe.
Facts: information about reality that we get using measuring devises of known accuracy and that give the same answers again and again.
Knowledge: combine facts with rational explanations that generate testable predictions. Do the tests again and again, publishing negative results with just as much fanfare as positive ones. Be skeptical of outlandish results, use critical thinking and work very hard not to commit any of the errors that plague our efforts to think clearly.. Do all this and eventually you arrive at a body of scientific knowledge. Unlike "truth" this sort of knowledge is not absolute. It is provisional and subject to revision as more data becomes available and explanations improve. But is it the best you can do. And much has already been done. Familiarize yourself with the existing body of scientific knowledge -- stand on the shoulders of giants, the view is much better.
Belief: a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't answer you questions and you must have an answer on which to base your decisions. Beliefs should be avoided at all costs, much better to admit that we don't yet know and just continue searching. But the world being what it is, there are many decisions that must be guided, at least in part, by nothing more substantial than belief.
Reality Based: based on what we know really exists, as detailed under knowledge above.
Not Reality Based: beliefs which have been put to the test and repeatedly disproved.Such beliefs tend to have such immense popular appeal that one flawed investigation supporting them out-weights hundred of well design studies disproving them.
Credulity: a willingness to believe in someone or something in the absence of reasonable proof.

So I would say it is best to first stop believing and then observe what doesn't go away -- that's reality. And when someone comes to you preaching absolute "truths" be very, very suspicious. And that includes me, though I'm going to try very hard not to preach or offer absolute truths. Just the facts, ma'am, and some rational explanations which include predictions that you can test for yourself.

For those interested in pursuing this line of thought about thinking, here are several Wikipedia articles that may be of interest: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, Cognitive Distortion, List of cognitive Biases,
and another article on Logic & Fallacies -- Constructing a Logical Argument.

I can give the highest recommendation to Skeptic magazine, which you should be able to find on a newsstand near you or check out the electronic version online.

Above, I defined belief as "a last resort to turn to when the currently known facts and the best available explanations of them don't answer you questions and you must have an answer on which to base your decisions." The world being what it is, there are many decisions that must be guided, at least in part, by nothing more substantial than belief. For those who are curious about what I do believe, I've added a page entitled "What I believe" to this blog.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Cargo Cult Science

The title for this blog is from a quote from Nobel prize winning physicist  Richard Feynman: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." He was referring to what he considered the right way to do science, but as you'll see as I continue on here, I think this can be applied pretty successfully as an approach to life, as well.

Here's a link to the speech that quote comes from: Cargo Cult Science. It was given as a commencement address at Caltech. What Feyman was talking about was pseudoscience, when he called "cargo cult science" in reference to the Pacific Islanders who, after the Americans left at the end of World War II, built simulated airstrips, hoping to entice the planes full of "cargo" to come back again. Didn't work, of course, any more than the trappings of science adopted by many groups these days turns their bizarre beliefs into scientific "truth". But those trappings are enough to fool a great many people.

Feynman closed his speech by wishing the graduating class at Caltech the good luck to work somewhere where they can do real science and "not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on,to lose your integrity."

My purpose here is to share with you what I have figured out about what's going on in the world today. I hope to maintain the integrity Feynman was talking about and not fool myself (the easiest person to fool) along with the rest of you.

We've all got brains, but unfortunately they don't come with an owner's manual. People have been doing something that could be called "thinking" for two or three million years now. Amazingly it's only been in the last few hundred years, since the Enlightenment, that we have figured out the scientific method, critical thinking and skepticism as tools for really using our brains.

The good news is that there is nothing to stop an individual from using those tools to evaluate the ideas we are bombarded with every day, to see if they really stand up to a skeptical, critical examination.

Wikipedia has a good article on pseudoscience. They also have a list of topics characterized as pseudoscience that is well worth scanning through just to see if any of your deeply cherished beliefs made the list. There's nothing much sadder than believing in something that has already been proven wrong.