Monday, December 28, 2009

Deeper is not Better

Over the past couple years Automatic Earth has become one of my favorite economic blogs and Ilgari's Christmas Eve post is a good example of why I venture there daily. Ilgari makes the point that the past year's economic developments were, essentially, about the transfer of private debt to the public. This picture just gets worse and worse:
Many people today feel happy and positive when they look at the stock markets, because they think these reflect the real economy, and since the markets are up, things must have changed for the better in the past year.

But they haven't, not below the surface. It's all veneer and no substance. What actually has happened is that -virtually- no debt has been paid off in our economies, in fact we’ve added trillions of dollars more in debt. What is different from a year ago is that a huge part of the old debt and all of the new debt has been transferred to the public, and away from private business, in particular financial institutions (and, to an extent, carmakers).

So it comes down to the fact that people feel happy for being deeper in debt, and quite a bit deeper. Being the humans we are, we focus on the short term gratification which can be found in the Dow and a whole slew of increasingly fabricated numbers and government reports, while we conveniently ignore the enormous increases in debts, both public and private, that we will have to pay off down the line.

But, you say, it's not as bad as it may look, because when the crisis is over, we will return to growth, and that will take care of the debt. That and shrewd dollar-inflation strategies by the wizards at the Fed and Treasury.

Really? What if the crisis lasts, let's say, ten years? All that needs to happen for that is for home prices to keep falling, or even stagnate. And that seems a near certainty.

The US has no private mortgage market left, or even a viable housing market. Neither do Canada, Britain, Holland and many other countries for that matter. Homes are sold and mortgages approved only because the state takes them off the lenders' hands and books the minute the deals are closed. The loans are then securitized and sold on to, in America's instance, the central bank. In other words, all of the risk for all of the entire loans processed in this fashion lies squarely with the taxpayer.

And that is not a good thing if prices keep dropping. When unemployment won't come down. When governments start raising taxes because sovereign debt goes through the various rooftops.

The main problem's not even paying off the principal of the debt. That won't start happening for years to come, if ever. It’s paying the interest on the debt that will become the most immediate headache.

Read it.

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Copenhagen Aftermath

I'd planned on writing about the recent climate change talks but Asymptotic Life has a great post on the Copenhagen Aftermath to get it started. I may add more later.

The leader of the G-77 group of developing nations said, "It is asking Africa to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dependence of a few countries."
A Greenpeace press release warned that President Obama "now risks being branded as the man who killed Copenhagen."
Yet Amanda Little, in an unexpected post at Treehugger, excuses Obama by noting that "Fully 55 percent of Americans surveyed in a recent Washington Post-ABC poll disagree with the way Obama is handling the climate issue, concerned that he is moving too far too fast."

Personally, I believe that's because corporate intervention has prevented appropriate education-- and the realization that if we burn less energy, we'll spend less money! But the powers that be don't want us to burn less energy: the more we waste, the more money they make.

And again here, rightfully suggesting that since the government can't be counted on it is up to people to do it themselves:

The Copenhagen climate summit has ended. The result: a non-binding agreement that we ought to do something about CO2 emissions, but with no commitments as to who will do what. There's also a generalized statement-- again, nonbinding-- that there will be a fund to provide up to $100 billion per year to developing nations that must cope with climate change, with no indication of who's going to ante up.

In short, the summit was a failure. Some argue that getting nations to agree on anything is itself a success. But the fact is, two nations blocked this process: the United States and China. These just happen to be the world's biggest carbon polluters-- and two of the nations least likely to be affected by early climate changes. Coincidence? I think not.

In essence, my country and its new ally China have thumbed their noses at the world. We Americans have said that we don't care what the cost is to others, we insist on maintaining our current levels of decadence and waste. And no one can stop us: we are the most powerful nation in the world (and China is probably second).

I am yet hopeful that the other industrialized nations will reduce their emissions, despite our refusal to do so. They will be at a significant economic disadvantage, since the U.S. will continue to plunge ahead without the added expense of paying for the cost of its carbon. We may regain hegemony as a result.

I am yet hopeful that the citizens of the United States will defy their leaders and demand change-- the change that then-candidate Barack Obama promised, but has yet to materialize. I am yet hopeful that each of us will cut our own emissions to the extent we can, and elect legislators and executives who will give us the resources to cut further.

It's too late to eliminate all effects of climate change. People will die because of our inaction. The best we can do is to act now to stop climate change from becoming worse than the present and future effects we've already caused.

The Bible (it's Sunday-- you knew I'd bring it back to the Bible) teaches us that we are responsible for the failures of our government. We will pay the price for the inaction of President Obama, and President Bush before him.

Will we stand by as our leaders heap guilt on us? Or will we stand up and demand what should have been done already? Sadly, I think we'll probably let Obama lead us down the road to Hell.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

Climate change, the translation

I've FINALLY gotten around to reading through Dimitri Orlov's blog and it is excellent. Some will think he is a bit harsh in his humor but I'm loving it in part for that reason. A recent post on Selling Climate Change is a great example. But not only is it funny, it is right on target.
Climate scientists and environmental activists who support them have been struggling to get their message across: that an increase in average global temperature of 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century is likely and would be a catastrophe.

Let's deconstruct this message on behalf of the person you see seated here. Starting at the end, there is this big scary Greek word. Tune that out: 'cat... here, kitty-kitty!' Let's also cross out all the words he doesn't care about: 'scientists,' 'average,' 'global' and 'Celsius.' These are all noise words. What we are left with is 'It will be 6 degrees warmer.' If he were wearing a sweatshirt, he might be prompted to think about taking it off, but as he is already down to just the boxers and the wife-beater, we shouldn't wish him to disrobe any further. If he succeeds in processing 'by the end of the century,' he would translate it as 'not any time soon.' If the word 'likely' makes it through his cognitive filter, it would come out as 'maybe.' The message, as received, thus reads: 'Maybe it will get a bit warmer long after I am dead. Well, whoop-tee-doo! What else is on TV?'

You may ask yourself, What difference does it make what this individual thinks? Well, it does and it doesn't. It doesn't because he has zero political or economic power or influence. It does because those who run the country in which he resides find it convenient to pretend that his opinion matters, to dumb down public discourse so as to frustrate the smart, educated people to the point of not wanting to participate, because dumb people are easier to exploit than smart people. If we want to influence public policy and try to prevent climate catastrophe (to the extent that it is still preventable) we need to have this fellow squarely on our side. This is not impossible by any means, but it is a dead certainty that scientific mumbo-jumbo won't make a convert of him.

The word 'climate' is a bit of a non-starter already. He likes 'climate control,' and what we are telling him is that he might have to get a bigger air conditioner... by the end of the century. That's just great. But the real howler is the persistent use of the word 'average.' Imagine him poking his head out of his double-wide trailer home to surmise the weather, and, turning to his Spandex-clad, morbidly obese wife, exclaiming 'Sweet Jesus, what an AVERAGE day! Take out your teeth, woman! Let's celebrate!' Are you beginning to get the picture?

Here is a mapping I would like to contribute to the question of how to sell climate change to the general public.

Screen shot 2009-12-20.png
Unlike the problem of stopping climate change, I see this communication problem as solvable. The issue, as I see it, is that nobody has really tried to solve it. The reasons for this are many and varied, but none of them is particularly good.

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In Transition 1.0

In Transition 1.0 is Now Available!! » Transition Culture: "‘In Transition’ is the first detailed film about the Transition movement filmed by those that know it best, those who are making it happen on the ground. The Transition movement is about communities around the world responding to peak oil and climate change with creativity, imagination and humour, and setting about rebuilding their local economies and communities. It is positive, solutions focused, viral and fun."

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Roger Ebert reviews Collapse

Not only does Roger Ebert write an excellent review of Collapse, but does a fantastic job of explaining peak oil, the issues surrounding it and what some of the details will look like in real life.
I have no way of assuring you that the bleak version of the future outlined by Michael Ruppert in Chris Smith's 'Collapse' is accurate. I can only tell you I have a pretty good built-in B.S. detector, and its needle never bounced off zero while I watched this film. There is controversy over Ruppert, and he has many critics. But one simple fact at the center of his argument is obviously true, and it terrifies me.

That fact: We have passed the peak of global oil resources. There are only so many known oil reserves. We have used up more than half of them. Remaining reserves are growing smaller, and the demand is growing larger. It took about a century to use up the first half. That usage was much accelerated in the most recent 50 years. Now the oil demands of giant economies like India and China are exploding. They represent more than half the global population, and until recent decades had small energy consumption.

If the supply is finite, and usage is potentially doubling, you do the math. We will face a global oil crisis, not in the distant future, but within the lives of many now alive. They may well see a world without significant oil.

Oh, I grow so impatient with those who prattle about our untapped resources in Alaska, yada yada yada. There seems to be only enough oil in Alaska to power the United States for a matter of months. The world's great oil reserves have been discovered.

Saudi Arabia sits atop the largest oil reservoir ever found. For years, the Saudis have refused to disclose any figures at all about their reserves. If those reserves are vast and easy to tap by drilling straight down through the desert, then ask yourself this question: Why are the Saudis spending billions of dollars to develop offshore drilling platforms?

Ruppert is a man ordinary in appearance, on the downhill slope of middle age, a chain smoker with a mustache. He is not all worked up. He speaks reasonably and very clearly. 'Collapse' involves what he has to say, illustrated with news footage and a few charts, the most striking of which is a bell-shaped curve. It takes a lot of effort to climb a bell-shaped curve, but the descent is steep and dangerous.

He recites facts I knew, vaguely. Many things are made from oil. Everything plastic. Paint. There are eight gallons of oil in every auto tire. Oil supplies the energy to convert itself into those byproducts. No oil, no plastic, no tires, no gas to run cars, no machines to build them. No coal mines, except those operated by men and horses.

Alternative energies and conservation? The problem is the cost of obtaining and using it. Ethanol requires more energy than it produces. Hybrid and battery cars need engines, tires and batteries. Nuclear power plants need to be built with oil. Electricity from wind power is most useful near its source. It is transmitted by grids built and maintained by oil. Wave power is expensive to collect. Solar power is cheap and limitless, but we need a whole hell of a lot more solar panels and other collecting devices.

Like I say, you do the math. Ruppert has done his math, and he concludes that our goose is cooked. He doesn't have any answers. We're passing the point of diminishing returns on the way to our rendezvous with the point of no return. It was nice while it lasted. People lived happily enough in the centuries before oil, electricity and steam, I guess. Of course, there were fewer than 6 billion of us. In this century, Ruppert says, there will be a lot fewer than 6 billion again. It won't be a pretty sight.

This May will mark two years since my move to the homestead and given what I see in the economic sphere I have no doubt it was the right move with fairly good timing. There are alot of folks out there desperately hoping that the economy is recovering. What they don't understand that even if such a recovery was in process (which is not the case) it could only be a short-lived recovery because the economy is based on oil. If we've passed peak (and I believe we have) there will NEVER be a recovery. Call it a collapse or the long emergency, it is here now.

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Reading through the comments in an article at The Automatic Earth I came across this:
As I talk to colleagues who are unable to see our civilization is already dead, it occurs to me their self-absorbed denial comes from a terror of recognizing how badly they've failed their own children, providing so little of essential value.

The above is a common thread about the near and far future of our world and what it is we will be living in that pops up on the AE as well as blogs such as Sharon Astyk's Casaubon's Book, Jim Kunstler's Clusterfuck Nation, John Michael Greer's Arch Druid Report and Orlov's Club Orlov.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Northern CardinalFor some reason last winter, my first as a full time resident, I did not feed the birds. Of course I watched them as I do all year but winter feeding of birds is always a treat because it seems to bring so many in. This year I noticed that they noticed the chicken scratch everywhere and were coming in as though I was purposely feeding them. Since then I've made it a point to put out bit extra and have added black sunflower seeds. The number of birds has been amazing. I'm not used to seeing six male cardinals at once! One or two is not unusual but six is not something I've seen. Pileated WoodpeckerNot as many females. I'm seeing the usual number of other winter birds: Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees, Juncos, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Downy Woodpecker. I've not seen any Pileated Woodpeckers here though I have heard them a few times. I've not seen any Gold or Purple Finches recently. One new bird I've seen is the White Throated Sparrow which is a very pretty bird similar in look and behavior to the Fox Sparrow.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
I've not been taking any new bird photos largely because I've already got so many shots of these particular species. It's been awhile since I posted any of my nature images so thought I'd pull a few from my flickr archives. For anyone interested in birds, frogs, insects, flowers, moss, fungi and other nature related photography please visit my flickr archives. Most of my nature images were posted in 2007 and early 2008 so it's easiest to browse them via one of the sets.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

My Climate Change “Action Plan”

I have nothing to add to this... thought it was excellent. Actually, she is somewhat joking but it is no joke. I'd suggest that even her most radical suggestions should be implemented and probably much, much more. The fact is we past the time for moderate measures 10 years ago. We've waited far to long and at this point even drastic measures are not enough.

From the Riot 4 Austerity:
My Climate Change “Action Plan”: "Since it is becoming increasingly obvious that there will be no binding agreement in Copenhagen next month about how to achieve necessary greenhouse gas emission reductions, I thought I would propose my own binding climate change mitigation strategy. Why not, eh? Members of the so-called 'developed' world seem to need a little direction in the matter, a little gentle urging perhaps. So here goes. By the way, I haven't decided if I'm joking or not.

Benign Dictator Theresa's 'My Way or the Fry-way' Climate Change Action Plan

All international and national sporting competitions will cease immediately. That includes the Olympics. All that travel is totally unnecessary and wasteful. Everyone bike/walk to your local sporting venue instead and support your local kids competing out of a sense of fun, rather than a sense of 'when-will-I-get-that-Nike-endorsement' greed.

Politicians, business people, you are heretofore directed to use conference calls and webcams. All your jet-fueled travel is canceled. Your 'leadership' isn't helping anyway.
Tropical and other 'must-have' vacations, same goes: canceled. There's lots do see and do within walking/biking distance of where you live. And if you need that much distraction in your life you have bigger problems anyway.

The Las Vegas strip is closed until further notice. Same goes for all other similar locations worldwide. Way too much electricity used for no good reason. Not to mention setting a really, really bad example on so many levels. (November 27 addendum: Thanks Dubai, for getting right on that.)

Sorry race fans, NASCAR, Formula 1, etc., canceled. Those fossil fuels are needed for other things. Get a pedal bike or a canoe and race that.
Everyone will be vegetarian and like it, so there.

Every household will be required to have and tend a food-bearing vegetable garden. If you have no yard, a community garden plot within walking/biking distance will be found and/or reclaimed for you (i.e., uncovering the soil under now-unneeded parking lots, etc). Seeds and gardening implements will be provided. Gardening/Cooking/Preserving classes will be taught to young and old, in your local community by cool people like Sharon Astyk and her many minions.

Work weeks will heretofore be limited to 4 days out of 7.
Two days a week will be mandatory car-free days. You need to work in your garden, or volunteer, or take a Preserving class, or take a nap, or have some local fun on those days anyway.

Cheap plastic crap will no longer be manufactured or sold. If we're expending resources to manufacture things, those things will be useful and built to last.

Get ready for it: Oil sands operations will be reduced by 50% immediately. We will use natural gas as a primary fuel, rather than using it as part of the tarsands extraction process. No new coal-fired electricity plants and 50% of existing ones will be shut down. All nuclear plants will be shut down, effective immediately. The precautionary principle will be the guiding principle from now on, period. All subsidies to fossil fuel industries will be entirely re-directed to renewables, effective immediately. All buildings will be retrofitted with these cool solar panel shingles.

Carbon/Greenhouse gas emissions will be capped on a per capita basis, to ensure that the 350 ppm goal is reached in the next 10 years, or maybe 5 years, I haven't decided. The cap will be the same for everybody, regardless of geographical location, income, celebrity status, or political office. If this means you have to reduce your consumption down to 10% of what it is now, get used to it. Fair is fair. Compliance will be enforced by whatever nefarious means I deem suitable.

Oh, and no one has any more kids until all the kids around the world in orphanages or on the streets have been adopted. 'Something' has been 'put in the water' already.

Really, compared to that, would it be so difficult to get something together at Copenhagen? I am being generally facetious and sarcastic with (some) of these points, but come on! It doesn't take that much planning and it is not a hardship to cut down electricity consumption by half, and in our household we've managed to cut back to 35% of the North American average. I realize that is just a drop in the bucket, but instead of working to increase the number of drops in the bucket, my Canadian government is just throwing out excuses and downplaying expectations before the Copenhagen meeting. It's sickening. What passes for leadership these days is absolutely sickening.

Ok, time to make some ginger tea to reduce my nausea.

Does anyone have any 'dream clauses' you would like to add to this 'action plan'?

November 20th: Friendly Amendments. The following amendments have been suggested by commenters, and are hereby incorporated into the Action Plan . I am a benign dictator after all....

Hadv's amendment: The status quo is not good enough anymore. The time for change has come. Get used to it.

Sensible Vermonter's amendment: Renewable power retrofits will be fully subsidized up front. Power generated by these renewable sources will be sold back to the 'grid' up until the subsidy is paid back, after which it will become a source of income for the homeowner.

Amber's amendment: Household composting is mandatory. A suitably sized composter will be provided to each household free of charge. Compost can be used by the homeowner or sold back to local compost exchange stations. Barter among neighbors is encouraged. Courses on regular and humanure composting will be offered alongside the Gardening/Cooking/Preserving courses noted above.

Theresa's afterthought amendment: In the spirit of re-localizing sporting and business events, all national and international travel for concerts, book tours, etc., will also be cancelled. Wherever you are, there are lots of talented local artists, authors, musicians and crafters who deserve your patronage.
Additional amendments and clauses remain welcome!"

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Loretta Missing

I've not seen her since Friday night. This is only the second time she has not returned. The first time she did not show up for a day. Given that it's been three days I'm guessing she has flown away or gotten hurt, hopefully the first. I don't know much about their habits other than what I've seen. The only thing that has changed is that the lake was frozen for a couple days. Perhaps that would be enough for her to leave? I had not expected that though.

I'm really bummed about it. I suppose I knew this day would come sooner or later but that doesn't really make it any easier. I find myself looking down at the lake constantly hoping I'll see her. Ugh.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Wood Stove Thermal Mass Update

Thermal MassFirst, a bit of background for those not familiar with the construction details of my cabin. It is standard 2x4 walls with R-13 insulation, R-19 in the ceiling and inside walls finished with plywood beadboard. While the floor is not properly insulated I did very carefully stuff MANY layers of bubble wrap in this fall with rolled wrap tightly stuffed into each end to block the wind. It's not real insulation but I'm certain that there is FAR less wind and air movement under the space that had previously been open. The bubble wrap was not purchased but re-used from Greg's shutter business. I've also got stacked rock along the base of the cabin from ground up a couple inches past the outer 2x8 rafter.

For this winter I stacked concrete blocks around my wood stove with excellent results thus far. I've got a total of 24 solid blocks (3.5" x 7.5" x 15.5"). They're stacked on the the two long sides and behind the stove and up about 2.5 feet on the back side of the stove pipe. On the sides I've got them stacked two thick (about 7"). On top I've got a big enamel canning pot full of water which leaves just enough room on the stove top to put my coffee pot. I also reinforced the floor deck under this corner of the cabin using a couple concrete blocks placed snuggly under the floor rafters.

I'm finding that I can do two very distinct fires, morning and late evening. Thus far each fire is 3-5 logs for a fairly hot burn of 1.5 to 2.5 hours. The result is that the concrete blocks moderate the hottest peak of the burn because they are of course absorbing lots of heat. About an hour after the fire has burned out the heat finally really makes it's way to the outer edges of the concrete. They are hot to the touch but by no means hot enough to burn anything. I type this at 3:15pm and the blocks and pot of water are still noticeably warm. My morning fire was over at 8:15am -that's seven hours of steady, slow warmth. I expect that they'll radiate heat for another hour, maybe two before diminishing. A huge improvement. Rather than peaking at 85 (or higher!) and fairly quickly dropping to 60 I'm peaking at about 80 and VERY slowly dropping. In fact, there is a moderation of temps even past the time that the blocks feel warm. I'm going out this evening and won't be back till 9pm to rekindle the fire but if the past week is any indication the cabin will still be at 60 or above at that time... 12 hours past the morning fire. Outside temps today: 30 at sunrise, 40 at 3:30pm. Inside temps today: 60 at sunrise, 68 at 3:30pm. I've just started keeping track 9 days ago and in that time I'm seeing an average difference of about 22 degrees at sunrise and sunset before the morning or evening fire is built.

My guess is that in the colder part of winter when nights regularly dip to 20 or less and highs only in the lower 30s that I'll be burning my morning and evening fires longer with more logs but I'm hoping that each fire will still be fewer than 10 logs. Based on what I've seen thus far I don't think it is unrealistic to estimate that I'll burn about 40-50% less wood than last year. I wish I'd thought to keep track last year with no blocks so that I could compare by numbers rather than memory of numbers. I routinely heated myself out of the cabin. It would warm very quickly but also cool fairly quickly, especially at night. Each day I'd try to get the fire up then let it go to very low coals and re-ignite. At night I'd try to keep the fire going till bed at midnight when I'd stock it up as much as I could without getting it too hot to sleep. If I failed to wake up at 2 or 3 am to get it going again I regularly woke to 40 degrees, sometimes less on really cold nights. Constantly up and down.

Regardless of how much wood I save I know for certain that the less extreme temperatures and warmer mornings will greatly increase my comfort level as well as the time I spend tending the fire. Well worth the $52 spent on concrete blocks! This is not even close to an original idea. There are many variations on the concept. Masonry stoves, cob.... the important thing is to have as much thermal mass around your stove as you can afford and safely place on the floor. If I had planned better I would have built this section of floor much stronger and would have 40 or 50 blocks rather than 24. In that case I'd often be able to get by with just one fire a day, burning it a bit hotter and longer and coasting for longer. The more mass the better the moderating of temps. The greenest choice would be a cob covered rocket stove. If I'd known of those when we started I probably would have gone that route.

Update: Last night got cold! Outside temp at 7am was 18 which I consider the first real test. Inside the bricks and water were still quite warm and it was 62 in the cabin. The fire did go late though as I got in late. Fire from 10pm with a big bed of coals at 1am, 7 logs burned. I'm VERY happy with this. I know from last year that a fire ending at 1am, with 18 degrees outside would have meant a morning just above 40 with NO residual heat from the stove. On a typical night though I'll probably start my evening fire 2-3 hours earlier which will likely mean that the fire dies down at 11pm and the morning temp will be closer to 58ish. Still, a fantastic improvement!

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