Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Clusterfuck Nation

Comment on current events by the author of The Long Emergency

by Jim Kunstler (July 10 2006)

Readers all around the the blogosphere have been twanging on me this week on two counts: one, that seven years ago I took the Y2K computer scare seriously, and two, that I have so far failed to correctly predict the end of the world.

For those of you too young to remember, the Y2K scare was about an esoteric little programming glitch that existed almost universally in older "legacy" computer systems around the world. The glitch in essence would have prevented older systems from recognizing the date beyond 12/31/99, and this, it was widely believed, would have pranged the interdependent complex institutions and public services that ran on these computers. There was fear that everything from municipal sewage treatment plants, to international banks, to big electric grids, to government agencies would stumble, that equipment for running these things would be badly damaged in the process, and that financial records would be lost on a broad basis.

As it turned out, very little happened on New Years Day, 2000. Scoffers exulted in their righteous rightness. The truth, though, was that immense sums of money had been spent - hundreds of billions worldwide - and countless work hours put in by programmers to avert the problem. It was a problem with a very definite deadline, and they made the deadline.

The Y2K event would have been a harsh lesson in the diminishing returns of technology and especially over-investments in complexity. Ironically, the work done, and the new equipment purchased by companies, institutions, and agencies may have played a major role in the tech boom of the late 1990s - which, of course, eventuated in the tech bust that immediately followed.

My own involvement in Y2K in the early days of blogging derived from my observation that a lot of knowledgeable tech people were taking the Y2K problem seriously, and yakking about it on the Net, and so I concluded the issue deserved attention. In retrospect, I also suppose that the one thing nobody really knew was how the programmers working on their own individual projects around the world were coming along, because a lot of that work and expenditure was going on in secret - big government agencies, big companies, and big utilities did not want to scare the public, queer their stock values, or let on about the difficulties involved in fixing the problem. And of course, the inter-connectivity of many of these complex systems - banks especially - was precisely the scariest part of the problem, meaning that it would not be okay for some of them to fix their problems and some of them to fail. As it happened, enough of them fixed their problems - at great cost - and their were no cascading failures. Score one for advanced civilization.

Now that I have written a book titled The Long Emergency, there is a new wave of disappointment gathering that life as we know it has not come to an immediate end, and I am being reproached for suggesting that we have some problems. Of course, that was never the point, as a reflection on the book's title ought to suggest. One funny element of this is that the reproach reached a crescendo the very week that crude oil prices reached record levels above $75 a barrel.

So this might just be a good point to step back and ask where are we now at mid-year, 2006. In January, I predicted that the US economy would get into a lot of trouble, specifically that the Dow would melt down to around 4000 and that we would see carnage on the real estate scene. When you figure in inflation, the Dow has just gone sideways for six months. What is propping it up? Last week I referred to Doug Noland's theory that investments in alt.fuels and technology are starting a new boom. I doubt this can work as a prop to support the huge losses in previous misinvestments. For instance, sooner or later General Motors will go up in a vapor for its failure to sell cars, pure and simple.

In any case, we are faced with the essential problem of ever-increasing prices for far less net energy. That is a recipe, perhaps, for an American peristroika, but not for continuing to benefit from the old arrangements. And so far, America at all levels, in leadership and the public, resists the sort restructuring we require. For example, we are still systematically starving and dismantling the railroad system instead of rebuilding it. There is still plenty of time left in 2006 for the stock market to start reflecting the true character of our phony-baloney economy - namely that it is based on consuming goods and resources without producing things of value.

It is my observation that the housing market is tanking broadly and steeply around the nation. In my own town, a mini "hot market", there have never been so many "for sale" signs planted in so many yards (and remaining there month after month). Some even have "price reduced" shingles added to them. But there remains mutual reinforcement between the sellers and their realtor agents to keep a happy face on the situation (to avoid panic selling).

Since house prices here, in a tourist town, are falling when the tourist season has hardly gotten underway, I have to surmise that the local market is in deep shit. A few months from now when the tourists depart, and the last golden leaves flutter down from the maples, I expect we'll see psychological capitulation among the sellers and their realtor cheerleaders.

The energy picture, as alluded to above, is certainly cause for concern. Oil prices are creeping up relentlessly into territory that will, at least, stall the consumption orgy among the WalMart shoppers. We are one hurricane or one geopolitical incident away from an energy trauma. The natural gas supply situation is another storm lurking on the far horizon.

So, here at high noon of 2006, I'll stand pat with what I have said more than once: we have already entered the zone of The Long Emergency.


The Daily Grunt (July 17 2006)

Letter to Jim Kunstler from a Missouri Farmer

Good day Jim:

I have been meaning to write to you for some time now. I held off because of your post not to pester you. You do not have to respond to this if you don't have time. For me, it just feels good speaking to somebody who is like minded. I apologize in advance for using you as a sounding board to vent my feelings ...

Do you remember me telling you about the farmers next door to us that did bagged silage and bagged haylage? they wrapped their big bales of hay in white plastic to ferment the hay. The plastic (petroleum) they use is unbelievable. The waste unimaginable.

Our neighbor is the son of the man who runs a very large cattle auction house here in midwest Missouri. Being right on Hwy 70 in the center of the state makes the auction lucrative because of its strategic location.

Our neighbor purchases cattle that come through the ring in poor shape, or cattle needing a few more pounds of weight. The farmers selling those cattle take a loss. Our neighbor buys them cheaper, and speculates that he can put enough weight on the cattle to turn them over in a few months and make a profit. I guess you could call it cattle speculation.

The fermenting big bales create a gigantic horrible stench as they ferment. I guess the field where they perform this operation holds about 500 to 800 big bales. Each big bale weighs between 900 to 1200 pounds or more. Imagine wrapping all of that in plastic. To say that this method of farming is unsustainable is an understatement. Now they have added insult to injury be utilizing another method of adding cheap fast pounds to their cattle.

We began to notice a new stench as we drove by the operation. This new odor put the smell of fermenting rotting hay to shame.

We found out shortly after that they are now purchasing chicken litter from poultry operations and they are feeding the chicken manure in wood shavings to the cattle. Yep, that's right. They are feeding chicken shit to the cattle. Makes you want to run right out and get a Big Mac.

Now they are building a pit silo. A pit silo is kind of like a berm house, or what they call an earth contact house. Only instead of filling the house with people, they will fill it with wood shavings and chicken shit, or alfalfa hay.

From our point of view this seems so unsustainable. Also, in light of our recent cutbacks and efforts at conservation, it makes it seem like we are not making much of a difference. I am just guessing, but I would say that for every farmer cutting down like we are, there are fifty who are doing bagged silage and feeding chicken shit to cattle.

Every instinct in my body tells me that feeding manure of any type, to any animal, is wrong. Earthworm farming may be the exception.

Jim, when we pasture our cattle there are always clumps of grass that remain untouched. These clumps are where cattle have defecated. Cattle instinctively know not to eat that grass. A cow will have to be starving to death before they will eat grass tainted with dung. By what lunacy do humans think they can undo nature without drastic consequences.

I don't know, maybe it is just me. But feeding chicken manure to cattle just sends chills down my spine. It feels like an act of desparate insanity.

We have not put down any synthetic nitrogen this year. Hay yields are down. Way down. We have forty acres that we rent every year for hay. This is our last year to rent. Without applying synthetic nitrogen fertilizer we don't make our rent back on the hay we acquire. When we do apply synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, the bales are way too expensive after we pay the rent.

We have reduced our herd size by 25 percent.

My husband drives a Saturn SL1. he gets 42 miles per gallon, and is still cost him 160.00 a month in fuel. I drive a Buick Regal and get about 26-28 MPG. I am cutting back as much as I can to save fuel. I can not afford a more efficient vehicle.

Everything else just seems to be grinding along here. People still shop at Wal-Mart. The traffic level stays the same. Lynn and I have both slowed down to 60 mpg on the highway. (yes, we stay in the slow lane). People whiz around us like their backsides are on fire.

But, there are signs that things are really beginning to unravel. For Sale signs are popping up in yards next to Larger vehicles and especially the large Winnebagos. The small farm next door to us has been for sale for a year with no signs of selling.

There is a small town auction house in Auxvasse. The "Dusty Attic" has a weekly auction where they sell consigned items. Most of the buyers are flea market owners, and people who rent space at flea markets and antique stores.

Sales at Dusty Attic have become dismal. The flea markets are just covered up. Their merchandise is not selling. Even furniture (long a flea market mainstay) has stopped selling.

I volunteer at a local thrift shop/food bank. Donations are down. Sales are down. Of course, this is Mexico, Missouri where there are 1,000 empty houses. The jobs are gone and the people are slowly moving away. Missouri Military Academy is just about the only decent place of employment in the town.

A P Green was a firebrick foundery that thrived in Mexico for 100 years. They recently sent the factory overseas. When A P Green left, the town died.

Of course, Wal-Mart recently put in a new super-center on the outskirts of town.

Now, Walgreens is putting in a new store right by downtown.

Since Wal-Mart moved so far out of town most of the elderly in town can't afford to go to Wal-Mart for their medication.

Adding to this sense of unreality is the newest purchase by the Missouri Dept of Transportation (MODOT).

Our young Governor, Matt Blunt (Roy Blunt's son) recently made national news when he slashed Missouri's Medicare program. Working at the food bank I have witnessed people being removed from wheelchairs and oxygen tanks, etc. The money from Medicare was in a general revenue fund. The money was suppossedly never slotted for Medicare. The money should have gone to the highway dept.

MODOT ended up with a lot of money.

Well, what have they done with that money? A recent newspaper article stated that all road repair and repaving in Callaway County (my county) would be halted for the next three years for lack of funding.

Oddly enough MODOT is in the process of installing mile markers across the entire state on Hwy 70. This makes no sense in light of the fact that we already have mile markers every single mile across the entire state, from St Louis to Kansas City. This was not good enough for MODOT. They are now installing a mile marker every single tenth of a mile. What a waste. Also, they recently installed cable separating the two sides of HWy 70. The cables do not stop larger vehicles, only sedans. They are a perfect height for an SUV to roll over. The cables are already falling apart.

A few years ago they installed plastic snow markers on the side of the Hwy. Those are almost all gone now. To me it just all seems like the act of desparate lunatics.

The thing is, Jim, I believe the great unraveling is not happening from the top down, but from the bottom up. I see a great unraveling taking place in the bottom right now. Most people just don't want to look down. They are too busy whistling in the dark.

Take care,

Bill Totten


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