Unplugged – or unhinged?

I’m reading reading a moving and important book by Sharon Astyk called “Depletion and Abundance: Life On The New Home Front”.
Uniquely among recent books on life after the Peaks – energy, protein, biodiversity etc – Astyk does not write to scare us all witless. She does not write about elaborate ways to fix The Economy. She does not even furnish a shopping list of green tools and equipment that we can all buy as evidence that we are Doing Something. (This latter prohibition is a particular disappointment to Kristi and me: we’ve been compiling a shopping list of high-end fruit dryers, choucroute kits, and grain grinders, that we were about to send to our friends before Christmas).
On the contrary, Astyk writes about the benefits that can come (and will come, for most of us) from being poor in material terms. She proffers practical advice on how best to live comfortably with an uncertain energy supply; prepare children for a hotter, lower energy, less secure world; and generally how to survive and thrive in an economy in crisis.
This shocking approach clearly freaked out the the New York Times: they ran a patronising story in their Fashion and Style section about Astyk’s work and life. The Times even dug up a so-called “mental health professional” – a Dr. Jack Hirschowitz – who was happy to pronounce Astyk’s “compulsion to live green in the extreme” as a kind of disorder.
There is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to the “compulsion toward living a green life” but Hirschowitz – a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, for goodness sake – said that “certain carborexic behaviours might raise a red flag.
“The critical factor in determining whether something has reached the level of a disorder is if dysfunction is involved,” he said. “Is it getting in the way of your ability to do a good job at work?”.
Aaah: work. That would be the activity that makes tens of millions of people do depressed that they have to be medicated by people like Dr Hirschowitz just so they can carry on doing it?
And that would be the work whose trainees – ten per cent of all American school-age boys – are now doped up to the gills with psychoactive drugs by Dr H and his colleagues to make them pay attention?
Rather than fight The Economy, or try to fix it, Astyk seems to be suggesting that we simply ignore it – that we unplug. It’s a very un-male, un-macho solution – which is why the book is subversive.
Astyk may have unplugged, but she’s not the one who’s unhinged.

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Moths to the flame

I was mesmerised by last night’s tv ad for Westfield, a vast 150,000 square metre shopping mall that opens in West London next weekend. The ad features attractive and horny young people who turn into fairies. Fair enough, but they then start taking off and fly across the city’s rooftops in ever-denser swarms. Their destination is the burning light of…..”a new and innovative shopping experience”.
Please reassure me that I did not imagine the whole thing. Go, check out their ad . Is it, or is it not, a film about moths to the flame ?

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It’s mad, but it’s not complicated

I imagine you’re having the same experience that I am? All around me, people are figuring out that the money situation may be mad, but it’s not complicated.
As the Big Dipper of financial bloggers, Ilargi, writes today, for example: “Stocks are plummeting once more all around the world, and if you think that trend will stop anytime soon, then you haven’t been paying attention. As long as there is maybe $1 of real money for every $25 dollars (or $100, or $200) of funny virtual money, stocks have a long way left to fall. Especially since what little real money is left tends to stay away from the crap tables. And that is what the exchanges – or make that the entire economy – have become”.
Illargi wonders, surely wisely, whether we properly understand what this means. “The funny money will disappear, no matter how hard its creators – the banks and governments operating in our societies – try to prevent that from happening. Nobody with assets that have some real value left will be willing to risk them in trades with what they know to be largely worthless counterparties. The only players staying at the table are the ones who are already broke. The only money left is the funny sort”.
This sounds depressing until you realise that you don’t need funny money to be active in the world. On the contrary, as countless social innovators already understand, the Law of Locality describes a near-infinity of opportunities to improve practical aspects of daily life. True, these opportunities exist outside the formal economy – but that’s more a problem for the formal economy than it is for human beings. Acting locally corresponds to laws of nature that don’t admit to action at a distance.

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Alternate Reality Game?

I saw this poster outside St Etienne station. It portrays The Mongoose who is “an infamous hitman hired to carry out assassinations and other evil deeds…the cruel and cold-blooded murderer carries out his orders with eagerness and glee.” It says it’s a game, and that it’s is powered by “Unreal Engine”.
Now is it me, or…..

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So what exactly, I wondered, is the Baltic Dry Index? And is it a good thing, or a bad thing, that it is plunging downwards at the fastest rate since records began etc etc?
These turn out to be two good questions.
The Baltic Dry Index (BDI), I discover, measures the freight rates of raw materials around the world. It’s therefore an important measure of material and energy intensity in the global economy.
We hardly ever see bulk carriers like the monster above, or this one below
– still less think about them. And yet we should: Shipping’s CO2 emissions, and energy intensity, are in the same order of magnitude as those of road and rail – which move much smaller cargoes over much shorter distances.
These high levels of resource intensity place a big question mark over the long term viability of bulk trade in food and raw materials.
A briefing by Global Dashboard recently commented on the shipping industry’s own numbers including the graphs below.
“One of the bits of data posted ” says GD, “compares the CO2 emissions from moving a ton of cargo 1 kilometre with the emissions that would result from moving it instead by rail, road or air. For shipping, the figure is 12.97 grammes of CO2 – as opposed to 17 grammes for rail, 50 for road and 552 for air.
“Presumably, the shipping companies involved think this constitutes a good argument in shipping’s favour. But in fact, the surprise is that shipping’s emissions are so high relative to the other three transport modes, rather than so low”.
This brings us to the Baltic Dry Index and its impressively plunging graphs….
BDI rates have plunged 50 percent this year – in large part, apparently, because iron ore demand from China is plummeting.
Do we want the Baltic Dry Index to recover and shoot upwards again?
If the Berge Stahl stays dockside, and empty, it’s good for the planet – but bad for the global economy in its present form.

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I told you so

“We will not have any more crashes in our time.”
“There is nothing in the situation to be disturbed about.”
“… the outlook is favorable…”
I couldn’t resist reproducing this 1927-1933 Pompous Prognosticators Hall of Fame
Someone should stand by to make a similar chart plotting, against actuals, today’s confident statements that we should not worry about climate change, or peak oil, or peak protein….

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Megacities after the meltdown

The received wisdom for a decade has been that the world will continue to urbanise, and that power and money will continue to congregate in a handful of megacity regions. The Megacities Congress in November begins to question these once-comfortable certainties. Well I will, anyway: I’m speaking on Friday 28th. The evening before (Thursday 27th) there’s a lecture by Adriaan Geuze on the Randstad, followed by a discussion that includes Ed Soja (et moi).

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City Eco Lab: on site and building…

…only we’re pouring earth not concrete See you in our little shed!

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When red is green and up is down

George Monbiot, in today’s Guardian, also links the financial crisis and the ecological crisis.”The financial crisis shows what happens when we try to make the facts fit our desires”, writes Monbiot. “The two crises have the same cause. In both cases, those who exploit the resource have demanded impossible rates of return and invoked debts that can never be repaid. In both cases we denied the likely consequences.The rules are the same in both cases. Ecology is the stock from which all wealth grows (but) if you extract resources at a rate beyond the level of replenishment, your stock will collapse”. Monbiot concludes, “Now we must learn to live in the real word.”
This is a good cue for me to head back to St Etienne head back to St Etienne for the coming days. I’m more convinced than ever that working at the level of the region – as we are doing there – is a better use of one’s life energies (which are also finite) than making demands of national politicians that they are in no position to meet – nor even, for the most part, to understand. As Jonathon Porritt puts it in his new book Globalism and Regionalism at least two of the basic foundations of civilised life – energy, and food – are readily and satisfyingly available at a regional level. “A watchword of sustainable economics is self-reliance. This entails combining judicious and necessary trade with other countries with an unapologetic emphasis on each country maintaining security of supply in terms of energy, food, and even manufacturing”.

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