Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Iranian FM talk

Yesterday the Iranian Foreign Minister, Dr. Mohammad Zarif spoke at my university to a packed auditorium consisting of Canberra diplomats, public servants and scruffy university students. My IR friends had got me to book a ticket with them well in advance so I got to hear him. He was a very eloquent speaker and handled all the provocations attempted at him by pro-westerners very tactfully.

Two things that interested me were: 1) when asked about IS, he strongly alluded to US support for them. I think most of the audience missed it because of their censoring bias, but I picked that up several times during his talk.

The second was his worldview in general. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian FM wrote an excellent article recently that gave me some insight into his thought as well. The difference in their evaluation ability in comparison to that of our western leaders, is that they have an erudite view of history.

The fact that our crop of politicians not only ignore but actively dismiss any lessons from history explains why mistakes get repeated again and again. Lavrov and Zarif both have an innate understanding on their countries' place in time and space, and are able to learn from previous history and extrapolate patterns into the future. Such analytical thinking is abjectly missing on our part.

Needless to say, he was a politician worth his salt and puts Hague/Kerry/Bishop and all of them to shame. I can't think of a single western diplomat who could impress a crowd as much as him (even a crowd in a western university), which says a lot about our choice in leaders.

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Great Depression II: Bigger and better than the last one!

If you have been watching the news right now, you might be scared. Or even confused. You might be hearing about the constant losses in the Chinese sharemarket and wondering why people are freaking out, and more importantly: what it means for you. This might be further muddled with a bunch of talking bobble-heads who are trotted out to repeat “don’t panic, everything is fine. Keep your money in the bank. Go out and buy that new iPhone. Consume!”

So here’s what it means. It involves a little history lesson. We go back to the end of the roaring twenties, specifically 1929. Throughout the decade thousands of ‘investors’, through a series of fraudulent methods, been inflating bubble after bubble of speculative enterprises that sucked the savings of Americans and through their demand, people across the world into a financial black hole (literally, because no information escaped about what was actually going on). The exact details are excellently laid out by the famous John K. Galbraith in his book “Great Crash 1929.” In fact while you’re waiting to see what happens, you might want to search that book in your local library and give it a read. It doesn’t take that long. If you want a dry synopsis, the Wikipedia page does a relatively decent job of it as well.

By 1929 this fa├žade of economic stability reached gargantuan proportions. From 24th October to 29th October 1929, now the infamous ‘Black Thursday’ and ‘Black Tuesday’, the stock market plunged repeatedly, beginning at a drop of 11% of its value at the opening bell. That amounted to $30 billion dollars of perceived wealth, wiped out in 5 days. Repeated attempts to close and re-open the market and confidence measures such as the Rockefellers and other notable businessmen buying millions of shares failed, leading to the Great Depression.

Does this sound familiar? Yes if you have been following the news. On 12th June the first shocks puncturing our most recent bubble appeared on the Shanghai Stock exchange – one of the major financial centres of the entire world, when it lost 5%. On the 7th and 9th January of this year, the market fell 18%. The Chinese government repeatedly closed the markets and most of the time, it has ended trading the day lower than it started. World markets, including Dow Jones, are also sucked into this quagmire, since most of the speculative finance heading into China is from western investors. Add to that, the extreme deflation in oil prices (which aren’t a good thing at all) and its mounting losses in the fracking industry means that a major depression is now on the horizon.

There are many people who will insist that everything is alright and that this is all normal. A good read of J.K. Galbraith’s book that I mentioned earlier will remedy any thought of that. For the last 7 years, ever since the recession of 2008, vast amounts of imaginary wealth (they call it quantitative easing) has been pumped into the world economy, where again it mostly got invested in speculative enterprises that inflated the value of investments to over a thousand times their actual worth.

People will send Bloomberg articles saying ‘look, so-and-so bobble head economist says everything is fine. You must be wrong!’ I answer: Nonsense. Economists have the liberty of being constantly wrong and yet taken legitimately to criminal levels. The so called fraudulent investors and supporting government cronies have been lying to leech their profits and cover their asses for decades – they lied about the massive delusion of America’s housing market in 2008, they lied about the actual productivity of all the oil bubbles since, and they’re still lying. If you want to take a person’s word seriously, check the accuracy of their previous statements. Most of the ‘respected’ financial authorities will turn out to be complete charlatans.

I travelled arounds parts of China mid-last year, and saw the effects of the bubble coming first-hand. Bridges half built and left derelict. Flyovers where the foundations were the only things built. Bullet rail lines that were only marked out. And to top it off, massive ghost cities where not a single person lives, the houses of which were priced in hundreds of thousands of Yuan.

The only difference is that instead of private market personalities such as the Rockefellers, the desperate market-saving attempts are being made by the Chinese government, itself heavily involved in the speculative frenzy. Billions of dollars of investment money were gambled on China’s growth. There were nowhere that imaginary money could have gone apart from into dead-end malinvestments. The much-repeated fatal mistake of confusing money for actual wealth and GDP as actual growth resulted in the massive ghost-cities and hundreds of botched infrastructure projects that have marked Chinese growth over the last decade.

So what does this mean? It could mean Great Depression II. Great-er, I should say. In the previous great depression, massive infrastructure project as part of Keynesian economic philosophy were a viable option. In a world where we still had growing access to energy supplies and ample oil, putting people to work through extracting energy and investing in capital was an option. That won’t work this time, despite the almost religious chants of many of today’s leftists that Keynesian economics is still the answer. We live in a world with dwindling energy supplies, where shrinking economies is a matter of course, and any large investment in capital runs up hard against the increasing costs of extracting oil.

This depression is going to be a lot worse than the last one. I’m sure that almost every half-baked conventional economic strategy, ranging from insane Friedmanite fantasies to extreme Keynesian money printing (I mean, screen money typing) and massive state-planning will be tried, and every single idea will crash and burn, taking large chunks of the world economy with it. They will fail because every single ideology is unequipped for the realities of ecological overshoot and is blind to the reality that we have used up over half of all the oil reserves in the world and production from here on is only going down. You can bet that it will take decades for humanity to finally blunder into a level of abstract wealth and allocation of resources (particularly energy) that actually make a little more sense based on our actual balance.

In the meanwhile, there is plenty of pain for almost everyone who is alive right now. The previous depression was marked with widespread unemployment, starvation, destituteness, poverty and loss of hope. The following decade is likely to bring the same bag of things, probably a lot worse since today’s people aren’t as recently jaded from a world war like last time, are far less equipped to live on a shoestring budget, and more importantly, can’t cope with reality without cheap access to technology to sedate them.

Being a student looking at graduating soon, the coming years are set to take a hard toll on me and my peers. A realistic dialogue is needed now, before things start biting, to convince people to start making the tough decisions needed to survive the coming years.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Back to the 2050s

This being the first week of the New Year, all the notable writers on any topic at all are posting predictions for this year. The more prudent ones are saying what they’ve been saying all along – expect 2016 to be a continuation of 2015, but with a few more bumps and steeper gradient. For those who are hoping now is the time for some miraculous piece of technology or sudden revolutionary awakening of human consciousness to save the impending doom of our civilisation, this year is once again going to disappoint. I can’t add much of value to the predictions already made by Greer or Kunstler, so I think I’ll probe further into the future.

This slightly-further future is going to be very different to the one that has constantly been predicted by tech-fetishizing cheerleaders. Let’s take the year 2050, when I will be 55 years old. I expect that world to be very different from the one we find familiar. The ravages of war, depletion and climate change is going to result in a world, if parts of it are functioning at all, more resembling that of my grandfather’s time and earlier – perhaps like the year 1950, a century earlier. I'm going to (very roughly) outline how the forces of engineering and economics will shape the trajectory of the future ahead of us in terms of some features central to the lifestyles of people inhabiting developed societies right now.

Personal Computers and the internet: Expect these to disappear from the home, from your backpacks and pockets. To produce these devices, we need a strongly globalised economy with ample inputs of fossil fuels to extract, process, and manufacture raw materials into the highly precise pieces of circuitry required for digital computing. This massive embodied energy cost will be economically inefficient for functions that can be fulfilled with printing presses and radios. On top of that, the continuing pursuance of planned obsolescence production by most of the major tech companies means that plenty of valuable material is simply being wasted instead of being reused. As our current culture is obsessed with constantly producing and consuming ever more high-powered and resource consuming devices, regression to more sensible, low powered earlier computers will also no longer possible as our entire computer systems infrastructure is constantly ‘upgrading’ to better produce the sort of needlessly overpowered devices we use today.

By 2050 vast cost of manufacturing personal computers will make them inaccessible to average households once again. Emails will once again be a luxury, probably costing several times regular ‘snail’ mail. Computers will only be affordable to rich companies, government departments and academic institutions who will use them for what they were originally meant for – processing large amounts of data and complex calculations, instead of watching cat videos. As explained by John Michael Greer, the internet will morph into something more resembling the older DARPA-net, used only for essential tasks.

Cars: People living in many western societies can’t fathom life without their personal oil burning machine – I mean, car. Our cities are all structured around this gargantuan form of wastage and pollution. The advent of the car was a sign of a huge surplus of energy that our society had in the 20th century, and similarly future shortages of such energy will do the opposite. When filling up your car is going to cost a quarter of your weekly income, and you have to juggle rent and soaring utility costs, you’re likely to ditch that gas-guzzler and live closer instead. No matter how much people try and cover up, facts are that personal transport is simply infeasible in a society where people have to pay the full costs of energy usage.

Take the graphic below, for example. Apart from just noticing the congestion issues, notice that each vehicle expends most of its energy in making itself move, and that moving passengers is a much smaller marginal energy input. Obviously a mode of transport that can move the most people is going to be more efficient in variable cost (per person), than one that spends a majority of its fuel in just making the frame and associated parts move (the extremity of that being a car with one person in it).

Secondly, think about systems costs. Cars and buses both require several lanes of gravel and tar, which is really energy and cost intensive. Compared to that, one set of rails with loose gravel, and cobblestone roads (that can be made with human labour) is going to be far easier to build and maintain. Any sensible administration will make the cost-effective choice, that is, ditch conventional roads once the huge subsidies governments have set up for them are ditched.

Along with this, I also expect that the time of sprawling suburbia with associated highways and malls is going to end as well. More competent administrations will invest in better urban planning and public transport, such as light rail. Long commutes are going to be unaffordable and thus undesirable (thankfully). Already built large suburban areas are going to turn into desolate ruins, be stripped down to make way for agriculture if possible, or turn into smaller towns and hamlets.

Phones: More and more of our communication infrastructure is tied to the internet, so the demise of the internet will bring about the phasing out of mobile phones associated nick-knacks like video calling. Rolling out wires for a telephone line operated by humans with switchboards is considerable, but a lot less than building mobile towers every few kilometres and keeping satellites in the sky just so you can find the nearest restaurant. It’s far easier to just use your local telephone to keep your loved ones notified when increased mobile costs mean that texting or calling on the cellular network costs as much relatively as it did in 1990.

Expensive cellular network costs will increase the demand for substitutes such as regular mail, or maybe a cost based email system. Even amongst those who could potentially afford the luxuries of mobiles, such as the elite, I expect that the most functionality the average phone will have will be calling and messaging. Mobile data networks are likely to disappear altogether, especially when the internet of the near future won't be even near as large as it is today. You’ll have to look up city directories and magazines to find a nearby restaurant, or rely on word of mouth again. And perhaps learning to read a map will be of value as well.

Flying: I myself have been very guilty of this particular form of waste, having travelled across the world in the past few months. Of course, not only are jet aircraft very fuel consuming, the also require huge amounts of embodied energy to produce and maintain. In terms of domestic transport, a country that wants to remain connected will have to resort to a lower capital and higher labour input level form of mass transport, such as railway or boats. There might be a narrow window of opportunity where airships can be a competitive substitute to both rail and flight, however due to our cultural obsession with needle-shaped heaver than air devices, I highly doubt that airships will gather sufficient investment to be developed before things get worse. I could (and hope to be) wrong – several militaries have been working on airships as heavy-load transport, and will perhaps have some sway over civilian transport policymakers.

Entertainment: When things regress, it’s often not in the same way backwards as it was forwards. The shifting of mass-entertainment from TV to the internet affected a profound cultural shift where people are now used to being instantly gratified with whatever form of entertainment they want. 

Gone is the patience of pencilling down a show you want to see at 7:30pm on a certain channel. Furthermore, most inhabitants of currently ‘developed’ societies are going to be overburdened with work to just feed themselves and therefore are unlikely to find TV worthwhile in terms of time or money. I find the return of TV as a mass medium unlikely in such circumstances. Perhaps old-fashioned movies combined with news reels will be the most viable form of visual entertainment and become popular as they were during World War II and after, as it’s far cheaper to pay a few dollars to walk into a short news and TV show than to buy a TV set and subscription.

Books are still relatively popular and will have better demand as handheld devices become less common. Although this also means that personal music will also disappear, the demand gap will be picked up by a renaissance of radio media, which has been surviving somehow through all these years of increasing on-demand digital entertainment. Radio is a much cheaper alternative as all it requires is a few microphones, maybe a recording player or two and a transmitter, rather than huge servers and factories needed to keep tablets and iPods going. The same can be said of newspapers; the printing press has been around since the 13th century and isn’t going to be upstaged by internet news in terms of energy and cost input - ever.

Usually predictions of the future done by my fellow millennials are an assortment of their preferred techno-fantasies. However, most millennials are also completely oblivious of the unfolding crises that are going to wipe out industrial civilisation a few lifetime from theirs. Most see their current difficulties as a temporary set of circumstances that will improve once all boomers die and more ‘efficient’ or ‘equal’ policies are enacted as part of their utopian revolution. The fact that economic decline is going to be a permanent feature of their lives which they can adapt to or flounder in hasn’t struck home. Of course, the school of hard knocks is expected to make many students over the next few years. Being more realistic about the future ahead, can help preparation.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Distracted Generation

2014 was touted as the year of economic recovery, aggressively drilled into our heads by the self-deceptive shrieks of a few politicians, businessmen and tech-yuppies. Yet for most people in my generation, the Millennials, it was another slide into the economic and social volatility that further shatters their confidence in the state, society and their future.

In Oceania this has manifested itself as abject apathy and a feeling of powerlessness. Despite the comparatively soft impact the GFC had on this part of the world, it’s an open secret that the jobs are drying out and apart from a few select fields, things are going to get harder over the next few years. Unlike the rest of the industrialised world though, our countries have held onto the basics of social welfare state, so the perception amongst youth in this part of the world has been that the causes of their problems are mainly political. The governments of NZ and Australia definitely have very little youth mandate and are facing fierce backlash for every policy they float to their baby boomer voters.

The reality of the ecological crisis to come, and the necessary changes in lifestyle that will have to occur is not even closely a part of national consciousness here. It’s a curse of relative long term prosperity and low population – people here don’t consider themselves in terms of carrying capacity of the land they live in. Therefore, the dark cloud of dejection in the air is seen as a result of creeping worldwide instability, and malicious political climate. Behind the current apathy lies an earnest optimism that given the right decisions, all of the problems about to plague youth in the future – employment, climate change, war, equality – will fade away to a return of the sort of suburban comfort that their parents have enjoyed.

Depending on the political orientation of who you ask, the opinion of decisions that have to be taken vary. Your upper-middle class neo-lib kid will rave about efficiency and technology, how the next big thing will transform our lives into a singularity-served utopia. The labour (left or right, doesn’t matter) university student thinks that the 1980s were the worst thing to ever happen (understandable) and Keynesian style reforms with plenty of emphasis on income equality will mean that there’s enough big slices of economic pie for everyone. The university eco-group volunteers believe that besides the token vege gardens, all that’s required to solve climate change is solar panels lined on every surface and wind turbines on all the hills. Rad-fems will claim that gender equality is the pressing issue, while puerile Marxists are still waiting about for their revolution.

All of these various beliefs have three common characteristics: 1) that the expectations of entitled lifestyle requires no change, 2) the impoverishment of youth is purely a political problem that can be solved with policy, and most importantly 3) that endless economic growth can continue once again. Even though the solutions suggested by various youth interest groups may have their own merits, none of them hold actual relevance to the root of many societal problems today. At least over here, the fact that worldwide resource depletion and constraints are something we’ll have to live with for the rest of our lives hasn't even been considered as a topic for discussion.

Contrary to what older generations think, Millennials aren’t as techno-narcissistic as they seem. We aren’t the ‘Me Me Me generation’ (oh and what hypocrisy of those that accuse us), we are the distracted generation. Millennials distract themselves with various toys for the simple reason that reality is a bit too hard to deal with at the moment. Apathy is much easier, especially with the stranglehold that state institution dependence has on every aspect of young people’s lives.

For all the energy and enthusiasm Millennials demonstrate through protests and active organising, almost all of it is directed towards narrow interest group or self-interest goals. Too much is geared towards pressuring some abstract authority to initiate change, rather than taking the onus to create frameworks and relationships required to create grassroots change. True, there is plenty of cultural and policy change that is desperately required for youth today, but behind this lies a looming civilizational crisis that is being ignored.

I went to a large youth climate change summit two years ago where almost all of the focus was on pressuring state and international institutions to enact vague policy. Some of the organisers even insisted that changing personal lifestyle would only have a marginal impact and that government held the main responsibility of responding to climate change! The glimmer of middle-class western entitlements is defendable at all costs, regardless of how ridiculous and unfulfilling that goal may seem. For the same reason plenty of apparently altruistic action from energetic individuals at universities (in the form of organisational participation) is just another means of CV building for their aspiring management careers.

If the baby boomer generation sold out after the heyday of their youth, it seems that Millennials have sold out already. When reality comes knocking, (which will within the next decade in this isolated part of the world), Millennials will need to accept that permanent economic growth in the developed world is gone forever, and their expectations of suburban western lives along with it. Once the edifice of debt-financed welfare and educational inefficiency crumbles, their lives will be a race to the bottom with vicious fighting over the remaining management middle-class jobs. Hopefully we can use those skills we developed so well in deluded careerism to produce something resembling an alternate framework of value.

(Comments and feedback welcome!)

Thursday, 1 January 2015

A Beginning

Happy New Year 2015 readers! At the moment of writing this there are none of you.
This is a new blog by a young engineering student. Highly under influence of the Archdruid Report, the topic that will mainly be explored is Peak-Oil/The Long Descent and the various facets of it including, but not limited to:
  • Engineering appropriate technologies
  • Economics
  • Eco-science
  • History
  • Geopolitics
  • Culture
Along with that some other things will be written about if I feel like it such as my interest music, arts etc. 

I'm no expert on any of these topics, so writing on this is an opportunity to research and learn. In this process I will make mistakes and invite people to correct me or provide their own thoughts.

At this point I might as well make my biases/beliefs somewhat clear:
  • I am a Socialist, and on this blog will have limited patience for neo-liberal cheerleading
  • At the same time my juvenile fling with Marxism is well and truly over - this also makes me Conservative
  • I derive inspiration from my traditional dharmic values - and hence will not pay much attention to science/progess cult rants (particularly atheist ones)
Also some non-revealing personal information to clear up context:
  • I live in Oceania/Asia Pacific so this blog will mainly focus in that region
  • I study a double degree in Engineering/Arts at a university in that region
  • Over the process of writing this I will do specific case studies of the cities I live in - don't become an investigative detective at that
  • Some of you (most of you at the start) will be linked this from my personal social media. I ask you all to not use my real name or reveal too much. I'm at least trying to keep this (somewhat) anonymous.
That's all for now. I'll try and post something soon to get myself started. Happy 2015 once again!