Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Has Success Spoiled The Crow? by David Quammen

Has Success Spoiled The Crow?
The Puzzling Case File on the World's Smartest Bird
--borrowed from David Quammen's Natural Acts, sans permission.--
(found at http://home.alltel.net/sammurdock/cm/corviary/success.html)
Any person with no steady job and no children naturally finds time for a sizeable amount of utterly idle speculation. For instance, me--I've developed a theory about crows. It goes like this:
Crows are bored. They suffer from being too intelligent for their station in life. Respectable evolutionary success is simply not, for these brainy and complex birds, enough. They are dissatisfied with the narrow goals and horizons of that tired old Darwinian struggle. On the lookout for a new challenge. See them there, lined up conspiratorially along a fence rail or a high wire, shoulder to shoulder, alert, self-contained, missing nothing. Feeling discreetly thwarted. Waiting, like an ambitious understudy, for their break. Dolphins and whales and chimpanzees get all the fawning publicity, great fuss made over their near-human intelligence. But don't be fooled. Crows are not stupid. Far from it. They are merely underachievers. They are bored.
Most likely it runs in their genes, along with the black plumage and the talent for vocal mimicry. Crows belong to a remarkable family of birds known as the Corvidae, also including ravens, magpies, jackdaws, and jays, and the case file on this entire clan is so full of prodigious and quirky behavior that it cries out for interpretation not by an ornithologist but a psychiatrist. Or, failing that, some ignoramus with a supple theory. Computerized ecologist can give us those fancy equations depicting the whole course of a creature's life history in terms of energy allotment to hunger and motherly love, but they haven't yet programmed in a variable for boredom. No wonder the Corvidae dossier is still packed with unanswered questions.
At first glance, though, all is normal: crows and their corvid relatives seem to lead an exemplary birdlike existence. The home life is stable and protective. Monogamy is the rule, and most mated pairs stay together until death. Courtship is elaborate, even rather tender, with the male doing a good bit of bowing and dancing and jiving, not to mention supplying his intended with food; eventually he offers the first scrap of nesting material as a sly hint that they get on with it. While she incubates a clutch of four to six eggs, he continues to furnish the groceries, and stands watch nearby at night. Then for a month after hatching, both parents dote on the young. Despite strenuous care, mortality among fledglings is routinely high, sometimes as high as 70 percent, but all this crib death is counterbalanced by the longevity of the adults. Twenty-year-old crows are not unusual, and one raven in captivity survived to age twenty-nine. Anyway, corvids show no inclination toward breeding themselves up to huge numbers, filling the countryside with their kind (like the late passenger pigeon, or an infesting variety of insect) until conditions shift for the worse, and a vast population collapses. Instead, crows and their relatives reproduce at roughly the same stringent rate though periods of bounty or austerity, maintaining levels of population that are modest but consistent, and which can be supported throughout any foreseeable hard times. In this sense they are astute pessimists. One consequence of such modesty of demographic ambition is to leave them with excess time, and energy, not desperately required for survival.
The other thing they possess in excess is brain-power. They have the largest cerebral hemispheres, relative to body size, of any avian family. On various intelligence tests--to measure learning facility, clock-reading skills, the ability to count--they have made other birds look doltish. One British authority, Sylvia Bruce Wilmore, pronounces them "quicker on the uptake" than certain well-thought-of mammals like the cat and the monkey, and admits that her own tamed crow so effectively dominated the other animals in her household that this bird "would even pick up the spaniel's leash and lead him around the garden!" Wilmore also adds cryptically: "Scientists at the University of Mississippi have been successful in getting the cooperation of Crows." But she fails to make clear whether that was as test subjects, or on a consultative basis.
From other crow experts come the same sort of anecdote. Crows hiding food in all manner of unlikely spots and relying on their uncanny memories, like adepts at the game of Concentration, to find the caches again later. Crows using twenty-three distinct forms of call to communicate various sorts of information to each other. Crows in flight dropping clams and walnuts on the highway pavement, to break open the shells so the meats can be eaten. Then there's the one about the hooded crow, a species whose range includes Finland: "In this land Hoodies show great initiative during winter when men fish through holes in the ice. Fishermen leave baited lines in the water to catch fish and on their return they have found a Hoodie pulling in the line with its bill, and walking away from the hole, then putting down the line and walking back on it to stop it sliding, and pulling it again until [the crow] catches the fish on the end of the line." These birds are bright.
And probably--according to my theory--they are too bright for their own good. You know the pattern. Time on their hands. Under-employed and over-qualified. Large amounts of potential just lying fallow. Peck up a little corn, knock back a few grasshoppers, carry a beak-full of dead rabbit home for the kids, then fly over to sit on a fence rail with eight or ten cronies and watch some poor farmer sweat like a sow at the wheel of his tractor. An easy enough life, but is this it? Is this all?
I f you don't believe me just take my word for it: Crows are bored.
And so there arise, as recorded in the case file, these certain . . . no, symptoms is too strong. Call them, rather, patterns of gratuitous behavior.
For example, they play a lot.
Animal play is a reasonably common phenomenon, at least among certain mammals, especially in the young of those species. Play activities--by definition--are any that serve no immediate biological function, and which therefore do not directly improve the animal's prospects for survival and reproduction. The corvids, according to expert testimony, are irrepressibly playful. In fact, they show the most complex play known in birds. Ravens play toss with themselves in the air, dropping and catching again a small twig. They lie on their backs and juggle objects (in one recorded case, a rubber ball) between beak and feet. They jostle each other sociably in a version of "king of the mountain" with no real territorial stakes. Crows are equally frivolous. They play a brand of rugby, wherein one crow picks up a while pebble or a bit of shell and flies from tree to tree, taking a friendly bashing from its buddies until it drops the token. And they have a comedy-acrobatic routine: allowing themselves to tip backward dizzily from a wire perch, holding a loose grip so as to hang upside down, spreading out both wings, then daringly letting go with one foot; finally switching feet to let go with the other. Such shameless hot-dogging is usually performed for a small audience of other crows.
There is also an element of the practical jokester. Of the Indian house crow, Wilmore says: ". . . this Crow has a sense of humor, and revels in the discomfort caused by its playful tweaking at the tails of other birds, and at the ears of sleeping cows and dogs; it also pecks the toes of flying foxes as they hang sleeping in their roosts." This crow is a laff riot. Another of Wilmore's favorite species amuses itself, she says, by "dropping down on sleeping rabbits and rapping them over the skull or settling down on drowsy cattle and startling them." What we have here is actually a distinct subcategory of playfulness known, where I come from at least, as Cruisin' For A Bruisin'. It has been clinically linked to boredom.
Further evidence: Crows are known to indulge in sunbathing. "When sunning at fairly high intensity," says another British corvidist, "the bird usually positions itself sideways on to the sun and erects its feathers, especially those on head, belly, flanks, and rump." So the truth is out: Under those sleek ebony feathers, they are tan. And of course sunbathing (like ice-fishing, come to think of it) constitutes prima facie proof of a state of paralytic ennui.
But the final and most conclusive bit of data comes from a monograph by K. E. L. Simmons published in the Journal of Zoology, out of London. (Perhaps it's for deep reasons of national character that the British lead the world in the study of crows; in England, boredom has great cachet.) Simmon's paper is curiously entitled "Anting and the Problem of Self-Stimulation." Anting as used here is simply the verb (or to be more precise, participial) form of the insect. In ornithological parlance, it means that a bird--for reasons that remain mysterious--has taken to rubbing itself with mouthfuls of squashed ants. Simmons writes: "True anting consists of highly stereotyped movements whereby the birds apply ants to their feathers or expose their plumage to the ants." Besides direct application, done with the beak, there is also a variant called passive anting: The bird intentionally squats on a disturbed ant-hill, allowing (inviting) hundreds of ants to swarm over its body.
Altogether strange behavior, and especially notorious for it are the corvids. Crows avidly rub their bodies with squashed ants. They wallow amid busy ant colonies and let themselves become acrawl. They revel in formication.
Why? One theory is that the formic acid produced (as a defense chemical) by some ants is useful for conditioning feathers and ridding the birds of external parasites. But Simmons cites several other researchers who have independently reached a different conclusion. One of these scientists declared that the purpose of anting "is the stimulation and soothing of the body," and that the general effect "is similar to that gained by humanity from the use of external stimulants, soothing ointments, counter-irritants (including formic acid) and perhaps also smoking." Another compared anting to "the human habits of smoking and drug-taking" and maintained that "it has no biological purpose but is indulged in for its own sake, for the feeling of well-being and ecstasy it induces . . ."
You know the pattern. High intelligence, large promise. Early success without great effort. Then a certain loss of purposefulness. Manifestation of detachment and cruel humor. Boredom. Finally the dangerous spiral into drug abuse.
But maybe it's not too late for the corvids. Keep that in mind next time you run into a raven, or a magpie, or a crow. Look the bird in the eye. Consider its frustrations. Try to say something stimulating.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

piece on farming by Barbara Kingsolver

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Interdependence by Scott Teitsworth

Interdependence Day Before starting any enterprise we must first become free of all ouroppressive dependencies. Independence is a necessary first step to healthyinterdependence, but it is not an end in itself. This preliminary stage iscelebrated in America on the Fourth of July, commemorating its Declarationof Independence from monarchy. But we have allowed the step to become asnare, substituted the means for the end. We have gone overboard aboutindependence, which when taken to an extreme can produce isolation andencourage dominance of those whom we are independent of. Our imaginedindependence from nature, including many parts of the human race, hasabetted aggressive policies sometimes even approaching genocide. Not justin America, but everywhere. It is therefore essential to distinguishbetween independence and interdependence. Who of us imagines that we can live without the assistance of others, andthat this extends far beyond our immediate circle of friends and relatives?A very small flight of imagination shows us how little we actually providefor ourselves and how vast a treasure trove is flowing toward us from alldirections. Goods and foods from every corner of the world are moving ourway, produced by people, transported by other people, and delivered to ourfeet by still other people. People who we will never meet are guarding oursecurity, planning for our future, and building and maintaining our cities.Air and nutrients are being processed invisibly by our cells without ourslightest thought. Plants are respiring oxygen so that we may continue tobreathe. Oceans are evaporating moisture so that rain and snow can providehumans, animals and plants with year round water supplies. The sun isbathing us in light and warming the planet to a comfortable temperature. Itis not even too hard to imagine that the animating principle of our bodiesis some form of blissful energy that is almost entirely unknown to us. Soour apparent independence comes at the tail end of a long series ofdependencies. All of us in fact are totally interdependent entities. There is a paradox here. The belief in independence encouragesselfishness, while awareness of interdependence is expansive. Selfishnesslooks like the pathway to wealth but it is actually the road to poverty. Ioften think of the Great Depression of the 1930s, which was a time ofbuilding schools, public buildings, roads and infrastructure, and compareit to the boom years of the 1990s, when schools and infrastructure fellinto ruins, roads degenerated and public buildings were given away as giftsto private corporations. Our interdependence needs to be acknowledged, but our mesmerization overindependence often elbows it out of the way. Independence has becomeanother form of dependence, a cliché which blocks our understanding. Justas Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter carefully removed the many references togovernment assistance from the manuscript of The Little House on thePrairie series, we continually reenergize the myth of independence bydenying our interdependence. My wish for all you dear friends around theglobe is to always remember how much we need every bit of what there is,that by trying to keep it for ourselves we lose it, but by sharing we allgain immeasurably. Scott Teitsworth, 2004

Monday, August 16, 2004

testimonies and testicles.

originally learned this from Marcus Borg:
derivation of the word testimony has to do with testicles. Also see Genesus 24.9

Monday, July 26, 2004

The Practice of the Presence of the Wild by David Oates

Friday, July 23, 2004


Oil Gone

If peak oil theorists are correct, our dependence on oil is not only foolish, it's lethal. Does modern civilization have just two choices--change or perish?

By R. V. Scheide, MetroActive

No blood for oil!" antiwar activists cried worldwide in the months leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March, 2003. Their pleas fell mainly on deaf ears, dismissed by various government officials and media pundits who assured Americans that in the wake of 9-11, U.S. foreign policy had become far too complex to sum up in such a simple, outdated slogan. "No blood for oil!" the activists doggedly insisted, drowned out by the technological thunder of shock and awe.
That might have been the last the general public heard of the phrase if not for an unexpected turn of events that began not long after President George W. Bush crowed "mission accomplished" on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln one year ago: the price of oil began rising, and gasoline followed suit. Heading into Memorial Day weekend this year--the second-largest driving holiday of the year in the United States--the average price for a gallon of regular grade gasoline in had climbed 58 cents to $2.05 per gallon, the highest in two decades. What a difference half a buck per gallon makes! Oil was back in the news. The financial community panicked. Supply shortages and reduced refinery capacity were pushing prices up; analysts warned that any long-term rise in prices would threaten the global economy's fledgling recovery. Saudi Arabia, already pumping millions of gallons per day beyond its quota, promised to pump even more to increase supply, but the price still gushed to nearly $40 per barrel. That didn't deter a record number of Americans, including an estimated 4 million Californians, from hitting the road for the holiday weekend.
As travelers settled down to family barbecues, terrorists linked to al Qaida attacked an oil-industry compound in Saudi Arabia, murdering 22 Western employees housed at the facility and casting doubt on the security of Saudi oil fields. No production facilities were damaged, but by the end of the first trading day after the attack, oil had jumped a record $2.45 during the session, reaching $42.33 per barrel and showing no signs of slowing its ascent.
Suddenly, after the terrorist attack, "No blood for oil!" didn't sound quite so silly. Almost overnight, mainstream media discovered a global oil shortage. The media have yet to state a direct connection between the shortage and the blood that's currently being spilled in Iraq, but it's getting warmer.
In recent weeks, major outlets including CNN, the New York Times and National Geographic have run prominent features on "peak oil theory," until recently a little-known concept outside the circles of petroleum-industry geologists and hardcore conservationists. The theory's implications are literally nothing short of apocalyptic, which makes its recent dissemination by such mainstream sources even more worrisome. No blood for oil? If the peak oil theorists are correct, we are about to enter an age that makes that price seem like a bargain.
In fact, this age may already be upon us.
The Party's Over
When Santa Rosa author Richard Heinberg first encountered peak oil theory in the late 1990s, he had a revelation. Somehow, he'd previously managed to write A New Covenant with Nature: Notes on the End of Civilization and the Renewal of Culture without listing "oil" or "energy" in the index--he'd hardly touched upon the subjects in the book. His revelation was that when it comes to the end of civilization as we now know it, oil and energy are the primary areas of concern.
Sitting in a meeting room at Santa Rosa's New College of California campus, where he teaches courses such as "Energy and Society" and "Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community," Heinberg, one of the nation's leading experts on the ramifications of peak oil theory, humbly explains how just a few short years ago, he knew very little about it. A self-described generalist who now drives a biodiesel Mercedes Benz, he immediately set out to learn everything he could about the subject. He studied peak oil theory, attended many obscure energy conferences and eventually published The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies in 2003. Peak oil theory, originated by the late geophysicist M. King Hubbert in the 1950s, figures prominently in the book, which begins on an exceedingly ominous note:
"The world is changing before our eyes--dramatically, inevitably and irreversibly. The change we are seeing is affecting more people, and more profoundly, than any that human beings have ever witnessed. I am not referring to a war or terrorist incident, a stock market crash, or global warming, but to a more fundamental reality that is driving terrorism, war, economic swings, climate change and more: the discovery and exhaustion of fossil fuel resources."
Simply stated, peak oil theory holds that total annual global oil production over time, from the oil industry's beginning in the mid-1800s to its predicted end sometime within our own century, conforms to the familiar bell-shaped distribution curve when graphed. Production rises steadily until reaching the graph's peak, at which point half of the world's total oil supply will have been used up. Once the peak is reached, annual oil production begins steadily declining, unable to keep up with rising global demand, and the price skyrockets, leading to widespread financial instability.
Could we be peaking now?
"The short answer is that no one knows," Heinberg says, adding that the peak can't officially be declared until global demand exceeds production, which hasn't occurred yet. While one group of scientists predicts the peak could occur anytime between now and 2008, the current consensus is sometime between 2006 and 2016. Heinberg has seen government estimates as high as 2035, which he says is extremely optimistic. "Those of us who study it think it will be sooner rather than later," he said. "It's starting to look like 2007."
From the point at which the peak occurs, the competition for the remaining half of the world's oil will grow more intense. Depending on how it's managed, there could be anywhere from 20 to 50 years' worth of oil left in the ground. Heinberg firmly believes that how we manage this oil during the coming decades will determine, for better or worse, the fate of humanity.
The problem, as Heinberg sees it, is that oil has been too good to us. Since petroleum helped spark the industrial revolution, the global population has exploded, from less than 2 billion people in post-industrial times to more than 6 billion today, stretching the planet's natural carrying capacity. Without oil fueling machines and factories and farms, such large numbers cannot be sustained. When the oil peak hits and the shortages begin, civilization will be faced with the delicate task of determining who survives. It's hard to get any closer to trading blood for oil than that.
"The entire economy runs on oil," Heinberg says. "The adjustments are not going to be easy."
Indeed, the worst case scenarios are terrifying: genocide on a scale never before seen, as control of the remaining oil divides along racial, ethnic and national boundaries. Even the best-case scenarios, all of which require unprecedented levels of international cooperation, political courage and public participation, offer grim life-and-death choices. There's simply no readily available source of energy that can replace oil as it steadily declines over the coming decades. Alternative sources such as wind, solar and tidal power, if applied on a massive scale, will help, but they won't fill the energy gap.
Nuclear power may be part of the solution, but it can't be the only solution: the uranium supply is expected to peak by 2100. In fact, all of these measures put together won't be able to make up for the energy lost through oil depletion. Civilization appears to be on a nonstop collision course with a second Dark Age.
Nevertheless, Heinberg manages to end The Party's Over on a positive note, presenting an ambitious "complete redesign of the human project," an immediate about-face "from the larger, faster and more centralized to the smaller, slower and more locally based; from competition to cooperation; from boundless growth to self-limitation."
"If such recommendations were taken seriously," he insists, "they could lead to a world a century from now with fewer people using less energy per capita, all of it from renewable sources, while enjoying a quality of life that the typical industrial urbanite of today would perhaps envy."
Sounds kind of like west Sonoma County on a Friday night. Of course, it was written a couple of years ago, before the invasion of Iraq, before oil pushed past $40 a barrel, before Heinberg gained a fuller understanding of the complex interconnections between money, oil, food, water, population growth and pollution. People who study the oil peak have a saying: The more you learn, the worse it gets.
That's true in Heinberg's experience. His latest book, Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, due out this month, presents civilization with four possible paths to the future. Foreshadowing the black humor sure to be found in the dark days ahead, only one of the paths leads to anything remotely resembling civilization as we know it, and as it turns out, the United States is already a long way down the wrong path.
Oil Gets in Your Blood
Peak oil theory is one of those subjects that just gets into certain people's blood. When someone with a willingness to test the truth of his own convictions tackles the subject, obsession often ensues. Santa Rosa resident Mark Savinar is a case in point.
A year ago Savinar, 25, had just completed law school and was waiting for the results of his bar exam. While researching on the Internet the role of drug money in the global economy, he ran across a reference to peak oil theory. Intrigued, he studied more and suddenly everything fell into place: the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the invasion of Iraq, the whole war on terrorism. "Oil made it all make sense," he says over orange juice at a downtown Santa Rosa cafe.
Savinar gathered some of the research he'd collected and posted it on his website, expecting to get maybe 10 hits from likeminded visitors. He got 800 visits the first week and a $250 donation. "This is what I should be doing," he said to himself. He passed the bar, but he'd already found a new calling: preaching the peak oil gospel on the Internet. Instead of entering law practice, he built up his website, and now www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net is the top linked peak oil site on Google.
"I wasn't going to hitch my wagon to something that wasn't going to be around," Savinar says, underscoring just how seriously he believes the oil crash is coming--there will be no need for lawyers after civilization collapses. His mission is to prepare as many people as he can for the catastrophe to come.
Savinar doesn't ask readers to take just his word for it. In addition to providing links to reputable peak oil research, he includes quotes from members of the Bush administration who fully acknowledge that the crisis is coming, if it's not here already.
"The situation is desperate," Bush energy advisor Matthew Simmons said in an interview with online magazine From the Wilderness in August 2003. "This is the world's biggest serious question." Asked if it was time to include peak oil in public policy debates, Simmons said, "It is past time. As I have said, the experts and politicians have no Plan B to fall back on." Is there any solution to the crisis? "I don't think there is one," Simmons said. "The solution is to pray."
In 1999, before he was elected vice president and was still CEO of Halliburton, one of the world's largest providers of products and services to the oil industry, Dick Cheney slipped a little peak oil theory into his own economic projections at a petroleum conference in London.
“By some estimates, there will be an average of 2 percent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead, along with, conservatively, a 3 percent natural decline in production from existing reserves," Cheney said. "That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional 50 million barrels a day."
As Savinar points out, that's six times the amount currently pumped daily by Saudi Arabia, one of the few countries still possessing excess capacity. Where does Cheney think we're going to get the extra oil? Does the Bush administration even have a plan?
They haven't announced it publicly, but with a little creative connecting of the dots, it's not too hard to decipher how the Bush administration plans to deal with the crisis. One of the first things Cheney did after taking office, besides meeting in secret with energy industry leaders, was to make "energy security" a national priority. Even before 9-11, Cheney strongly advocated invading Iraq, ostensibly to rid the world of an evil tyrant, but no doubt with an eye on the Iraqi oil fields, the second largest reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia's. Indeed, detailed maps of the Iraqi oil fields are among the few items that have been publicly released from his secret energy meetings.
After 9-11, it was immediately clear to intelligence officials that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had not played a role in the terrorist attack. Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pushed for the invasion anyway, and thanks to some trumped-up intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the administration was able to cajole Congress into approving Bush's "preventive war" doctrine; by March, 2003 the invasion was on.
More than a year into the conflict, no WMDs or connections to the 9-11 terrorists have been found; the Iraqis have welcomed their "liberators" with bullets and rocket-propelled grenades instead of open arms; widely disseminated photographs of American prison guards torturing Iraqi detainees have shamed the United States in front of the world; and more than 800 American soldiers have died, not to mention some 10,000 innocent Iraqi civilians.
That doesn't sound like much of a plan, as the Bush administration's detractors have increasingly pointed out. But as Savinar says, oil makes it all make sense. Another dot to connect: Cheney is now being investigated for allegedly participating in secret dealings that granted his former company, Halliburton, the contract to rebuild Iraq's oil industry. Suppose the goal all along was to seize control of Iraq's oil reserves?
"The reason we don't have an exit strategy is that we don't plan to leave," says Savinar. There's an estimated 20- to 30-year supply of oil in Iraq's reserves, and the longer it stays in the ground, the more valuable it becomes. Heinberg is inclined to agree that the United States has no intention of leaving Iraq, pointing to 14 permanent military bases that have been built there since the war started. These bases complete a line of military outposts stretching through Afghanistan, all situated near areas where large reserves of oil are known to exist.
Heinberg says this is the wrong path we have chosen, the path of cutthroat competition that treats blood and oil as commodities to be freely traded, as if neither had its own intrinsic value. As far as Heinberg is concerned, it is the road to ruin for us all.
Last One Standing
Sitting in the New College meeting room, Richard Heinberg hardly looks like a prophet of doom. Thin, with a sparse beard and impish face, he enjoys playing violin with his wife in their energy-efficient home. He grows much of his own food and doesn't mind that his car's exhaust smells like French fries. Once, he thought individuals living in this manner might be the solution to the impending oil shortage. But the more you read peak oil theory, the worse it gets.
"We can reduce personal energy usage, live closer to work, grow our own food, reduce our consumption," Heinberg says. "Beyond that, there are limits to what individuals can do. Ultimately, there is no personal survival without community survival."
In Powerdown, the path to community survival is similar to the suggestions presented in The Party's Over. There's more of an emphasis on population control, both to reduce energy demand and the pain and suffering of starvation caused by declining global food production. The United States can and should immediately begin developing large-scale alternative-energy systems using wind and solar power.
Nations need to begin cooperating with one another instead of competing for scarce resources. Wealthy countries like the United States must be willing to share resources with more needy nations. Collectively, we all have to "powerdown," reducing energy consumption to the bare minimum, perhaps as much as 80 percent in the long run.
It's been done before, albeit on a smaller scale. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba, which imported almost all of its oil from the U.S.S.R., suddenly faced an annual energy shortage of 25 percent. Fidel Castro's communist government immediately went to work, breaking up the country's large factory farms into small plots of land, encouraging city dwellers to move to the country and become organic farmers. Millions of bicycles were imported from China; cars were banned from certain roadways. The reforms worked, and by the end of the 1990s, Cuba had pulled itself out of what could have been a major depression.
Such a plan might work on the global level, Heinberg believes, but there are major obstacles, the primary one for the United States being that some of the methods will smack of communism. "It would require a command-and-control economy and a WW II-level of effort," Heinberg says.
He's not too optimistic that's going to happen. Even communist countries like China have become addicted to industrialization. The very same brand of bicycles Cuba imported used to pack the streets of Beijing. Just last month, the Chinese government banned bicycles from the city to make more room for cars, the fruits of its rapidly expanding economy. India likewise is enjoying an economic boom, and the recent industrialization of both countries is putting enormous new demands on the global oil supply. The world seems inevitably drawn toward the wrong path, the one Heinberg calls "last one standing."
"If the leadership of the United States continues with current policies, the next decades will be filled with war, economic crises and environmental catastrophe," he writes in Powerdown. "Resource depletion and population pressure are about to catch up with us, and no one is prepared. The political elites, especially in the United States, are incapable of dealing with the situation."
Some, of course, will find all this doom and gloom overwhelming and choose to ignore it, traveling down Heinberg's third path, which he dubs "waiting for the magic elixir." He writes, "Most of us would like to see still another possibility--a painless transition in which market forces come to the rescue, making government intervention in the economy unnecessary."
Sorry, that just ain't gonna happen, at least according to peak oil theorists. Heinberg additionally doesn't hold out much hope that the United States will be able to turn from the "last one standing" path anytime soon, and he admits that it may already be too late anyway. His plan to "powerdown" will take decades to enact, and the world may not have that much time left. However, when the collapse truly appears imminent, there's one last path to follow.
"This fourth and final option begins with the assumption that industrial civilization cannot be salvaged in anything like its present form, and that we are now living through the early stages of disintegration. If this is so, it makes sense for at least some of us to devote our energies toward preserving the most worthwhile cultural achievements of the past few centuries."
He calls that path merely "building lifeboats," and if it creates a sinking feeling in the pits of readers' stomachs, perhaps it's intended.
In a world that continues to trade blood for oil, this may be the only avenue of escape left.


I do have to respond the criticism of silly ass doomsday prognostications, to wit: even if we are just going through some "millenial" changes, the conditions present on the planet at this time, and the problems these conditons create and are continuing to create are verifiable data. "Silly Ass" is not a definite enough term to be proved or disproved. As the man said, "you cannot refute a sneer." The Call to Action that I mentioned is to provide help to people of limited means to make the millenial adjustments. The people putting out the call are people who are taking the past, present and possible future conditions into account and who are also knowledgeable about the alternatives. According to the best information I've seen, there is no way hemp is going to replace oil, (unless you are smoking the hemp when you look at the facts. In that case all bets are off anyway) neither will wind power, and neither will photo-electric, nor can hydrogen. And all for various reasons but basically because nothing provides the versatility or the energy reserves present in oil when it is avaiable in the billions of barrels range. The simple facts are that we, born and raised and taught in the Taker culture, are wealthy beyond belief due to the fact we are spending all the reserves of 'ancient sunlight' as Thom Hartmann called it in his book. Thom presented the distressing facts and went on to talk about how to survive the coming problems/millenial changes/doomsday etc. That's what Doug Pfieffer (a geologist) is talking about, that's what I was talking about. But unless some gigantic miracles occur (they were in short supply the last I looked) the odds of survival do not look good for about or at least six billion of the seven billion people on this planet or who are being born at ever increasing rates. We only have this population, and the concomitant problems (expanding deserts, 300 missing feet of topsoil, toxic pollution, increased carbon dioxide, starvation, wars, etc) because we have been living increasingly, since 1851, on the reserves of carbon stored under the earth in the form of crude oil and natural gas. As D. Quinn has pointed out, when the enormous food supply runs out, as it will when the oil runs out since it is grown in an oil based system, population reduction is inevitable. A Big part of the problem with the alternative energies is that none of the big players are paying attention to them. They are not chicken littles as much as ostriches hiding their heads in the sand instead of facing facts. Observable verifiable facts tell us that the condition for most of the world's population is diminishing swiftly and inexorably, and UNLESS we take a good hard look at the FACTS and read and absorb the story behind the story behind the stories we're fed then we cannot plan effectively for our children and their children and their children. I did not say Nature was going to die. No one said it was the end of the world. It's just going to be the end of most of the human population. Nature will continue of course, just without most of us because there are too many people. That's it and it's the truth. If you think that's silly ass talk, I suggest you go study some modern geology, read the industry's own books. Geologists have known for at least forty years, and have been telling us, that the supply of oil (easily, cheaply available that is) is finite. There will always be oil, but it will not be available at the cheap price, and in the quantities necessary to sustain the six or seven billion people now on the earth or who are coming shortly. Our whole way of life, houses, roads, stores, machines, computers, clothes, books, food and especially the current supply of food, is ALL dependent on cheap and expanding demands for OIL and nothing else. People who do not have their heads in the sand, or who are not playing 'new age' games have looked at all the alternatives, and have been llooking for years. There is NOTHING that can replace the energy equivalent of oil which is literally stored carbon energy. Oil stores it so efficiently that we have been able to live essentially beyond our means. We in North America and Europe expend 80% of the energy available from stored resources, and the other 81% of the world get the rest. The problems are going to surface first, as they are at this moment, in the poorest regions, and then spread. When it gets to us, the poorest and least prepared will suffer first and the richest and or most prepared will, if they survive the wars for our resources, will be the last to go. Again, the call to action is about how to transition mankind back to pre-Taker cultures living on the energy available from the sun, on a yearly basis. If we do not look critically at this sort of information and realistically assess the situation we will find ourselves unprepared for the 'adjustments' that are coming. Yes, people have been saying this for a long time. But, yes, they are correct. And yet we still aren't prepared. We still drive our cars, fly in our planes, live in our air conditioned houses, eat our bananas shipped in from South America by a ship powered by oil, eat our fish caught in the polluted oceans from fishing boats powered by oil, heat our homes with oil, light our electric lights or furnaces, or play games on our fucking computers that are all created from oil and powered by electricity which is produced in the main by burning fossil fuels. Hydro power alone cannot supply the current needs. Neither than the solar cells, which by the way take thousands of pounds of earth being dug up to get several ounces of the minerals to create the cells, and those panels are made from precision machined parts, which were created by machines powered with oil. The cotton shirts we wear were picked by machines powered by oil, transported by trucks burning gasoline and oil to plants somewhere where they were spun and woven by machinery driven by oil. Fertilizers are made from oil, pesticides are made from oil, and even though they don't kill the bugs we aim at, we continue to pour more and more fossil fuel based chemicals on them to increase production to meet the demands of our McCulture. Oh yes, Peak oil is important to you. You'd better believe it. Go try and heat your house with Hemp. Get from your house to your friends houses 10 miles away on a hemp powered vehicle (maybe a horse would do for a substitute, do you have horses?) And just because the extreme edges of both outmoded 'wings' of the political thought are talking about the coming problems, doesn't mean that it isn't true. If anything the fact that the INFORMED leftists, and the INFORMED right wingers are concerned, panicked even, should give us dolittles in the middle (or at some elevated point beyond politics) some food for thought. Maybe it goes beyond politics to plain old concern about survival. But, maybe it's all just talk, maybe. Maybe it is silly ass to think about the past, the present and the future, but ignoring what's going on in the real verifiable observable world isn't going to save us, cause we just won't be prepared. If you think of six billion human dead as an adjustment, then you've probably been watching too much fossil fuel based television. Again, I wish you good fortune. Ev