New Reality Initiative


 Facing the New Reality: Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead
— A Special Report from the Community Action Partnership

Click here to read online
Click here to download a printable version








  • Peter Kilde, Chair

Partnership Strategic Initiatives Task Force


The Yergin, Take 2 or Ah Ha: That Explains it | October 10, 2014 


An interesting aspect of being a blogger commenting on events in more or less real time, is that sometimes unfolding events derail your planned writing.  This is one of those times, prompted by this headline from Reuters on October 1st:


  •   U.S. grants first medal on energy to oil historian Yergin

    Oct 1 (Reuters) - As the U.S. drilling boom helps drive global crude prices to two-year lows, the Obama administration has awarded the country's first medal for energy security to oil historian and business founder Daniel Yergin.

    Yergin, 67, received the Schlesinger Medal for Energy Security from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a ceremony on Wednesday.

    The annual award is named after James Schlesinger, who in 1977 became the first U.S. energy secretary. Yergin advised Schlesinger as the country went through an oil price shock resulting from the Iranian revolution. Since then he has given advice to every administration, including President Barack Obama's.

"So what?", one might ask.  Well, as it turns out, among the realists sought out and cited in these New Reality posts, Daniel Yergin is literally the poster child for Wildly Optimistic and Inaccurate Energy Predictions, and for constantly trying to debunk the Peak Oil folks.  And as it also turns out, I wrote about this very topic in April, 2013 in a New Reality post entitled; "The Yergin."  It is a pretty good post, if I do say so myself, and I reprise it below in response to the story above.  I will have a couple more comments at the end after the heading; UPDATE, and conclude with the current New Reality Quiz.  So, here from April 2013:
In a couple of previous posts that contained references to Daniel Yergin, I noted that I would deal with him in a later post.  That time has arrived.
Perhaps no individual in America is a more prominent evangelist for the Don’t Worry – Be Happy religion of Future US Energy Abundance and Prosperity than Dr. Daniel Yergin.  (I call it a religion for several reasons, but mostly because it appears to be more faith-based than fact-based).  By all accounts, Daniel Yergin is an impressive guy.  A former Harvard professor, he’s highly credentialed, articulate, credible, pleasant, reasonable, authoritative, confident and, well, highly believable.  Yergin is the founder and chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) and the author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power (for which Yergin won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992) and The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, in 2011 (801 pages and drafted in longhand, no less).  He is everywhere on the TV, press, and conference circuit when energy issues are the topic at hand.
So it’s perfectly understandable that Daniel Yergin is the go-to guy when you want to do a story on the future of energy in America, like the CNBC “Power Shift” story featured in this blog on March 29th.  There only one problem:  While Yergin may be a very good historian, his record as a predictor of energy trends is flat-out lousy.  So lousy in fact, that in 2008, the folks at ASPO – USA (The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas – USA), a non-profit national organization made up mostly of petroleum geologists, academics, practitioners and investors, very publically bet $100,000 that Daniel Yergin and CERA’s predictions of worldwide oil production by 2017 would prove false.  Seriously.  Here is the text from a Wall Street Journal article about the wager:
If CERA proves correct in its prediction that global oil production will rise by 20 million barrels per day by 2017, then the challengers, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas , will hand CERA a check for $100,000 nine years hence. If oil production falls short of CERA’s projection, as the group known as ASPO projects, ASPO will get the bragging rights and the check – and donate the money to charity.
And here is the whole WSJ article:

Neither Yergin nor anyone else from CERA responded in any way, nor have they ever accepted repeated invitations to debate with the experts at any ASPO – USA annual conference.  Turns out it was a pretty safe bet on ASPO’s part.  Worldwide oil production in 2008 was 72,152,000 bbl/day.  In 2011, it was 72,889,000 bbl/day. No miracle in sight gets that up to 92 million bbl/day by 2017.
As you can imagine, this constant dismissing of ASPO’s work and important message by such a persistent and outwardly credible source is vexing to the organization.  This did not, however, keep the Peak Oil folks from having a little fun with Yergin’s predictions.  Here are some favorites:
•  In November of 2004, oil was trading at over $50 a barrel. While the Peak Oil folks predicted that the price would keep rising, Dr. Yergin predicted that the price of oil would go down to $38/bbl, and stay there.  In fact, the price of oil went up and up until it peaked in 2008 at $147/bbl before (and I would argue causally related to) the Great Recession.  During the price ramp up, some Peak Oil folks started using “The Yergin” as a unit of cost equaling $38, as in “Oil is trading at 3.2 Yergins today.”
•  Now, as Dr. Yergin and the Energy Cornucopians are out in full force once again touting the wonders of fracking and other technological marvels, this exchange recently appeared:
Person A:  How many Yergins to the dollar?
Person B:  How many Yergins does it require to change a light bulb?
Person A:  It’s the same answer to both.  However many you need!  It’s brilliant!  No more shortages of anything!
•  And finally: Your Every Requirement Given In No-time-at-all. All hail the magic Yergin.

OK, enough fun.  This is, in fact, serious business as the fate of industrial society is at stake here.  This week’s link is a serious critique of Daniel Yergin’s view of future energy abundance; a report by Daniel Davis entitled: “Evidence, Logic and Performance: Energy Independence Unsubstantiated; a Shortfall Between Energy Supply and Demand Looms.”  (OK, so the title does not exactly trip lightly off the tongue.  It’s a very good report.)  So, who is Danny Davis and why should we believe him?  Well, there’s a clue in this paragraph.  See if you can find it.
Daniel L. Davis is a field grade officer in the United States Army, having served four combat deployments (Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Afghanistan twice). He has a master’s degree in International Relations from Troy University. He has been writing on oil and energy issues in major national publications since 2007, but has been writing on foreign, diplomatic, and military affairs for over two decades. His work has been published in the Washington Times, Armed Forces Journal, Dallas Morning News, Defense News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Army Times and other publications. He has appeared on CNN, Fox News, PBS News Hour, NPR, Democracy Now, and other broadcasting organizations on defense-related subjects. Davis is also an advisory board member for the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, United States (ASPO-USA) and was awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling in 2012.
And the Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling?  This may surprise you.

The Davis report is a 43-page, well written and convincingly documented critique of three major recent sources of the US Energy Abundance Message.  Written by a person to for whom telling the truth is, shall we say, of uncommon importance.  The link:

The Connection 
This will be the last post for awhile that seeks to pop the Don’t Worry – Be Happy bubble when it comes to America’s energy and economic future.  Next week we will be getting back to how it is that we can best adapt to the real future; the one best supported by the most credible evidence.
Digging Deeper
  If you really want to more deeply understand and evaluate the many claims of energy abundance ahead, the Post Carbon Institute has recently published a tour de force on the topic authored by J. David Hughes, who worked for 32 years as a geoscientist with the Geological Survey of Canada.  It’s called “Drill, Baby, Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher In a New Era of Energy Abundance?”  Real busy? The answer is “no”.  Got a little more time?  Here is the executive summary:   Actually want to know what you’re talking about?  Here is the full 178 page report:
Update October 10, 2014.  With regard the statement in this post above: " Worldwide oil production in 2008 was 72,152,000 bbl/day.  In 2011, it was 72,889,000 bbl/day. No miracle in sight gets that up to 92 million bbl/day by 2017."  Well, that's not exactly true.  I overlooked the "miracle" of redefining "oil" to include a whole bunch of stuff that didn't used to be called oil.  Stuff like diluted bitumen from tar sands, natural gas liquids, ethanol, refinery gains (an increase in volume that results from breaking down complex hydrocarbon molecules in the refinery process; increasing volume without adding a single BTU) biodiesel and the like, many of which are much less energy dense than crude oil, and some of which take more energy to produce than they deliver.  The actual production of what was generally understood to be "oil", sweet crude and condensate, has pretty much plateaued at about 72 - 73 million barrels a day since 2005 despite frantic fracking and all the rest.

And for the irony lovers who often find good material in this post, the award given to Daniel Yergin, alternatively bane or laughing stock of the Peak Oil folks, is the Schleshinger Medal for Energy Security, named after former energy secretary James Schleshinger, who was himself a big believer in the seriousness of Peak Oil, and a major supporter of the Peak Oil community until his death last March.  You can't make this stuff up.  (Since first drafting this post on October 3rd, friend Kurt Cobb, whose writings have appeared here a time or two, has pickup up on the irony aspect of this little story with this article: "Irony alert: Yergin gets award named after peak oil realist Schlesinger"  Link here:

Final point, the ah ha.  Like last bi-week's post on why the public is of course confused.  If the Optimistic-if-mostly-wrong Daniel Yergin is the energy guru of the Obama Administration, well, that explains some of it.
The New Reality Quiz
First, last week's quiz question.  Infrastructure is what keeps America's economy in motion, so to speak.  According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, how many bridges in America are in "urgent need of repair?"  Answer: 63,000.  A little something to mull over next time you're crossing a deep river gorge on a bridge.
This bi-week's quiz question.  According to the same folks, how many of America's 75,000 dams are "at risk of failure?"
Back in November with the last in this three part series I should have entitled: "Buried in Bulls**t: The False Foundation of American Complacency".  Only I just thought it up.


Signs of the (New York) Times | September 26, 2014

truth-lieWhile there will be more to share from the Wingspread conference when the final report is released, that looks like it's going to take awhile.  So in the meantime, the New Reality Check will be picking up some of the many other threads that we can weave into a better understanding of what's happening in the world around us, and where all this is likely headed.
In the last few days, the venerable New York Times has offered up some pretty interesting clues.  The first is an Op-ed piece by Paul Krugman that showed up just last week entitled; "Errors and Emissions: Could Fighting Global Warming Be Cheap and Free?"  Weird wording, but a good question.  We start by conceding that Paul Krugman, who has written many pieces that I think are spot on, is no lightweight.  Here is what Wiki has to say about him:
Paul Robin Krugman (born February 28, 1953) is an American economist, Professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, Centenary Professor at the London School of Economics, Distinguished Scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study Center at the CUNY Graduate Center, and an op-ed columnist for The New York Times.[2][3] In 2008, Krugman won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his contributions to New Trade Theory and New Economic Geography.
Wow.  So when Paul Krugman states, as he did in the concluding paragraph of this piece

  • So here’s what you need to know: Climate despair is all wrong. The idea that economic growth and climate action are incompatible may sound hardheaded and realistic, but it’s actually a fuzzy-minded misconception. If we ever get past the special interests and ideology that have blocked action to save the planet, we’ll find that it’s cheaper and easier than almost anyone imagines.

Well, we should all breath a big sigh of collective relief.  We can have it all; a growing economy, prosperity for everybody, our high-consumption lifestyles, and a healthy planet, all at the same time; if we just stop being such fuzzy-minded worrywarts.

Here is the link.  Enjoy it while you can, then read on:

There is, as any reader of this blog would suspect, a problem.  While actually, there are eight problems, and one additional error.  That error is that Dr. Krugman lumped the Post Carbon Institute in with the Koch brothers as sharing the same view that emission limits would "kill economic growth." - and that didn't sit too well with the good folks and our friends at the Post Carbon Institute; especially with New Reality Wye retreat participant, Partnership Convention keynoter and prolific author, Richard Heinberg.  So Richard fired back with this piece; "Paul Krugman's Errors and Omissions," picked up here on the Resilience. org web site:

This is not just a verbal pissing match.  There is real and important information here.  Please read and judge for yourself, but Richard just makes it very clear that Paul Krugman, credentials notwithstanding, is woefully ignorant of the realities of energy and of its crucial role in the economy.  You, dear reader, if you have been following this blog over the past couple of years, know much more about Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROEI), the impossibility of substituting one form of energy, (say renewably generated electricity,) for another, (say oil,) at the scale required to have any effect whatsoever on climate change, the false promise of oil and gas abundance from fracking, etc., than the esteemed Dr. Krugman.  You should feel good about that.
And a final point on this exchange.  Paul Krugman and the whole host of mainstream economists and prognosticators always boil it down to this one, binary and false choice:  Economic Growth or Armageddon.  There are other choices and much better futures than either of these that are still consistent with Reality.  Here is Richard Heinberg's concluding paragraph

  • We believe that humanity can enjoy an improved quality of life and build a more sustainable future even as we reduce overall resource throughput. There is ample waste to be cut in the excessively consumption-oriented western way of life, and there’s still plenty of opportunity for less-wealthy countries to develop their economic and social systems in ways that are truly equitable and sustainable (and not fossil fuel-reliant). But that means changing priorities. Like fossil fuels, the growth fetish is something we must leave behind if we are going to have any chance of living sustainably on this planet.

  While this feels like a great stopping point, there remains one nagging and unresolved question:  Why does Krugman get it so wrong?  He is clearly very intelligent, well informed, and seems to have his heart in the right place, as evidenced in many of his other writings.  So what is going on?  

OK, let me be clear; I step now from my usual insistence on fact-based information into a speculation about the mental processes of a man I do not know and don't ever expect to meet.  But please bear with me.  I think it's very unlikely that Paul's confusion and ignorance is there because the realities Richard Heinberg points out are too complex (they are actually quite simple) or that the facts are hidden, secret, or only held by some crazy cult of doomers.  It's all out there in public, credible, official, plain sight.  I suspect that Paul doesn't know the truth about energy and the economy simply because at a sub-conscious, fundamental level, he doesn't want to know.  The realities of energy and the economy conflict with his deeply held religious convictions, a paradigm shared with most Americans who are also, whether they realize it or not, devout believers in the Religion of Progress.  Like die-hard Climate Deniers, their minds are made up and they will not let the facts overcome their faith.  Again, I am speculating, but if you have a more credible explanation, I would love to hear it.  Ten years into my (and very many others') efforts to bring the New Reality to light, and I am convinced that our overly optimistic delusions about Progress, Technology, and Human Ingenuity are the biggest barriers to our understanding of the human predicament early in the 21st Century, and more tragically, to our mobilizing  appropriate responses to that reality while there are still time and choices remaining.
Digging Deeper 
By coincidence, the fact and logic challenge noted above was not the only one that the Post Carbon Institute launched on the New York Times in September, 2014.  On September 6th, NYT Op-ed Columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a piece titled: "Leading from Within", in which he figured out how to greatly weaken Putin and ISIS and save the environment; easily and all at the same time.  Think I'm kidding?  Here tis

  • And the necessary impactful thing that America should do at home now is for the president and Congress to lift our self-imposed ban on U.S. oil exports, which would significantly dent the global high price of crude oil. And combine that with long overdue comprehensive tax reform that finally values our environment and security. That would be a carbon tax that is completely offset by lowering personal income, payroll and corporate taxes. Nothing would make us stronger and Putin and ISIS weaker — all at the same time.

  Breathtaking.  And total drivel, which prompted Post Carbon Institute Executive Director, Asher Miller to write this little response, a piece entitled: "Quite Possibly the Dumbest Thing the Mustache Ever Wrote."  Sometimes you just have to let 'er rip, and Asher did:

  • The oxymoronic logic displayed here is so dizzyingly self-contradictory that I had to re-read it three times in the vain attempt to find the hidden rationale that would turn the apparently nonsensical into the brilliant. Maybe it was written in invisible ink.

  I won't take you through the exchange.  Both articles are brief, interesting, informative and to some degree, entertaining.  (Curiously, Asher Miller didn't mention what I see as the biggest flaw in Friedman's piece: the fact that American is the world's second largest importer of oil, so if we export some of what we produce, we will just have to import that much more.)  But the real problem is that when perceived heavyweights like Krugman and Friedman spout this stuff, how is an American public largely awash in happy horses**t from the left (Green Recovery) and the right (Drill baby, Drill) gonna know they are being mislead once again?  A sign of the times.

The link to Friedman:

And to Asher Miller's response:

The New Reality Quiz 
But first, last bi-week's quiz question:  A two-parter - America has made great progress in recent years expanding its renewable energy production capacity.  So, what percentage of America's energy consumption is produced from renewables, and what percentage of those renewables is the hydroelectric generation noted in last week's quiz?  Answer 9.5% renewables, of which 67% is good, old fashioned hydro-electricity, leaving wind, solar, bio-fuel, geo-thermal ect. producing a whopping 3.1% of the energy America's consumes.  The problem is; Scale, baby, Scale.
This bi-weeks quiz question
Infrastructure is what keeps America's economy in motion, so to speak.  According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, how many bridges in America are in "urgent need of repair?"  And if anyone needs a reminder of what bridge failure look like, I used to live just a few blocks away from this, the Interstate 35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007: 


Back on October 10th.  Happy Fall (no pun intended.)



The New Reality Initiative Spreads its Wings - Part 3: The Confessions of Bigfoot and Silvertail | September 12, 2014
This bi-week, the New Reality Check presents the presentations the other presenters presented to those present at Wingspread; Nate Hagens and yours truly, Peter Kilde.  The six foot six Dr. Hagens (aka Bigfoot) gave two presentations; the first one kicking off the conference as an introductory overview.  The following sentences, annotations from the third slide, pretty much sum up how the New Reality Initiative and the Wingspread presenters view, interpret and understand the macro trends increasingly shaping our near and mid-range future:
We all view the world with various lenses – a ‘parent’ lens, an ‘employee’ lens, a
‘democrat’ lens. I’ve spent the last decade+ looking at the real drivers of our
economy/society as well as the humans who comprise it. I’ve concluded that viewing the
world through energy/natural resource and human behavior lens gives the clearest picture
of what is happening around us.

Nate then proceeds to give a very clear and concise presentation explaining why energy plays such an extraordinarily important role in our economy and indeed, in every aspect of our lives.  He begins to make the case that much of what we see as technological progress is basically just coming up with ever more ways to replace human labor and energy with fossil fuel energy; usually very inefficiently and in vast amounts.  Nate then goes on to define money - "a claim on future energy/natural resources" - in a way that begins to establish the foundation for understanding bio-physical economics.  This lens also makes more sense of what we are witnessing in the US and worldwide economy than we are getting from the explanations offered by conventional economic models.
In this introduction, Nate also makes connections with other forms of wealth, like social and natural capital , as well as with the science of human behavior, and then touches on how all of this connects with the myriad of crisis now unfolding everywhere in the world.
That's a lot of insight crammed into 38 PowerPoint slides.  Well worth the half hour or so it will take to go through these, not to mention the fact that Nate puts together some very cool, colorful and interesting slides.
Digging Deeper 
Nate's second presentation was made the following day at the beginning of our session entitled; "What are the Consequences of the New Reality?"  

Here he goes after a couple of very important questions:  

  1. If all this is happening, why don't we pay attention to it and prepare/act?
  2. What does an end to growth imply for people behaviorally?

 This is, of course, vitally important to the mission of the New Reality Project itself; a mission summed up in the byline of our Facing the New Reality report, which is: "Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead."  Four years on from the release of that report and amid ample evidence that the report's general predictions (decreasing federal funding for anti-poverty programs, a stagnating economy, worldwide economic and political turmoil, increasing impact from climate change, stubbornly high energy prices etc.,) were pretty much right on the money, there is scant evidence of any meaningful preparation in the works.  Hence the Wingspread Conference itself. 

I will not attempt here to summarize Nate's second presentation, but I will say this:  As noted in an early New Reality blog post, I set out with some seriousness about 15 years ago on a mission; trying to figure out what humans are and why we behave the way we do.  It's been an interesting journey both physically - off to Egypt and Indonesia, for example - as well as a journey back in time, especially into ancient history and prehistoric time.  Based on that, a degree in psychology, and forty six years in the human service field, I think Nate's take on why we are responding so poorly to the New Reality is also pretty much right on the money.  If you are at all interested in changing human behavior, (and if it doesn't change we are in very deep trouble indeed) you will find this presentation both fascinating and useful.
The Connection 
Finally, on to my presentation, the last of the conference, for the session entitled: "Going Forward:  What Can Be Done to Best Address the Consequences of the New Reality?"  My presentation's title is: "Addressing Poverty in the New Reality: Thinking Inside the Box ".

 The title of my presentation is based on a fundamental assumption of the New Reality Initiative - that our global society has entered the Age of Limits which, in turn, defines the "box" within which we must operate from this time forward.  Where all this gets very real is when we start talking about the material dimension of both wealth and poverty: Consumption.
Where all this gets a little dicey, especially for Community Action's mission of eliminating poverty, is because it leads to calculations like this:

    •  Population up, resources down = less per person = increased poverty.   Pretty much a mathematical certainty.


    •  The poor and lower middle class spend virtually all their money

  • For them, spending equals consumption
  • Increases in consumption deepens the crisis whether from poverty alleviation (like affordable housing projects) or from net gains in employment income, especially for lower income earners.
  • Paradox: Poverty reduction will increase poverty (creates a programmatic dilemma)

 Does this mean Doom and Gloom and All is Lost?  Nope.  But it does mean that we have to radically re-think our approach to alleviating poverty, including the creation of a new narrative about what it means to be poor, and what it means to not be poor.  Quite a challenge, it turns out, but one which a sub-group of the Wingspread Conference  participants is taking up in October.  I'm in that group, and I will let you know if we make some meaningful progress.  In the meantime, here is the thrilling conclusion to my little talk:

Finally, we will need new (and old) skills and new (and old) knowledge for a real New Age: an age of limited resources but of unlimited potential for happiness and meaningful life.

The New Reality Quiz 
First, last week's quiz question: In 1940, 40% of America's electricity was produced by renewable, relatively clean and somewhat less relatively environmentally benign, hydroelectric generation.  Since 1940, the amount of hydroelectric power generated in America has increased over 500%.  So, what percentage of America's electrical consumption is produced by hydroelectric generation today?  Answer: 6.4%  Turns out we really, really have an appetite for electricity.  Yum.
This bi-week's quiz question

A two-parter - America has made great progress in recent years expanding its renewable energy production capacity.  So, what percentage of America's energy consumption is produced from renewables, and what percentage of those renewables is the hydroelectric generation noted in last week's quiz?
Back on September 26th.

The New Reality Initiative Spreads its Wings - Part 2: Graphic Language
| September 2, 2014

graph9-2-14As promised in the last post, I am continuing to share what was presented and what transpired this past July at the "Navigating the New Reality of Economy, Energy and Environment" conference held at the Johnson Foundation's Wingspread facility in Racine, Wisconsin.  To keep the amount of information somewhat manageable, this week I am only attaching one document; an annotated PDF of two of the three presentations made by the Institute for Integrated Economic Research (IIER). 

These two presentations were led by IIER founder, Dr. Hannes Kunz, and focus mostly on the all-important relationship between energy and the economy.  There are lots of charts and graphs in these 83 annotated PowerPoint slides, but even for the graphically dis-inclined, the information thus presented is pretty easy to grasp, mostly.  (Below, I'll touch on a couple slides that folks struggled with a bit.)
So whether or not graphic language is your native tongue, understanding the economy as presented here will go a long way towards understanding the New Reality altogether, and given the sweeping importance of that understanding, digging into this PDF is well worth the effort.  Here is some of what you'll get

  •  a couple thousand years of economic history
  • why traditional economic models used to work and why they don't now
  • why most Americans are losing ground economically, and low income families are really struggling,  even when the official unemployment, inflation and economic recovery numbers are looking pretty good
  • where economic growth really came from, and why it's now basically over
  • why improvements in technology, renewables, and efficiency will not, and most likely cannot, save the environment and restore economic prosperity
  • why the recent expansion of US oil and gas extraction through fracking, tar sands etc, does little to change our future economic outlook
  • some well-reasoned glimpses at some more or less probable futures
  • why poverty, at least as we currently define it, is destined to define ever larger percentages of the population
  • and finally, why it is important to take some action in relation to all this stuff, and some direction on what those actions might be (more of this and why this is not all bad news, in the upcoming 9/12 post)

So, that's a lot of important stuff to grasp in a short time, especially if much of this is news to those exposed.  More to come on that too.  For now, here is the PDF (attached).  Since you were not on hand for the introductions at Wingspread, you might want to go first to the slides at the end (78 - 83) for a little information on the Institute for Integrated Economic Research and some insight regarding why the conference planners chose these folks to be our main presenters.
The Connections
To those of us focusing on poverty are pretty self-evident in the presentations, so I will not elaborate on them here. 

Digging Deeper 
As noted in the first paragraph, many if not most of the folks at Wingspread struggled with a couple of Hannes' slides; specifically slides #49 & 50.  The annotated version you have has the following description in order to clarify slide #49

  • Because energy was (and still is) relatively cheap in comparison with the human labor it replaced, those replacement ratios of 50‐1,000 were no problem for societies. At the long-term historic price of 20$/barrel, oil produced 22,000 times the energy of an American, 5,000 times the energy of an average human (globally), and even 700 times the energy of a human in Bangladesh. Nowadays, at 100$ per barrel, it is only 4,400 times that of an American, 1,000 times that of the average human, and 140 times that of a Bangladeshi.  

Now, if you read that and go "huh?", you are in pretty good company.  One could read this and conclude that the average Bangladeshi is 31.4 times as energetic as the average American - clearly not the case.  It's about cost.  The point, if I have it right, is that our current industrial economy has grown dramatically and continues to function because of our access to massive amounts of cheap, concentrated energy in fossil fuels.  Even so, our economy is now beginning to falter as extraction costs, both in terms of energy and of $, increase energy costs and produce less marginal return for society.  Given this reality,  a relatively small increase in the cost of that energy to industry, like electricity rising to 10 - 12 cents per KWH, will likely stall the economy, the point of slide #50.  As of yesterday, IIER is planning to write a longer narrative based on what you have here which will hopefully make this point more clearly.  If so, I will pass it along to you.
There is another very important message in slide #49, however.  The first column on the right compares the cost of a unit of energy, in this case one kilowatt/hour (kWh) with that produced by an American laborer using muscle power at the top ($260/kWh) to coal at the bottom ($0.007 per kWh), which makes energy produced by human labor 37,164 times more expensive than by coal.  So if technology can replace that human with a robot powered by electricity (read coal), there is a tremendous profit motivation to do so.  Not to mention that robots don't unionize, call in sick, take vacations, retire on a pension, or file sexual harassment lawsuits.  In conventional economics, this process would be called increasing worker productivity (one worker controls the 20 robots which replaced the 80 line workers), but I believe this completely obscures the reality of this transfer and sets up even greater challenges as our already problematic dependence on fossil fuels is therefore increased even further.  (see graph at the top of this post.)  To say nothing about the laid off and now impoverished former line workers - a little something to think about over the Labor Day weekend.  So here is my question, since this process is greatly reducing the amount of cash in the pockets of the growing ranks of the unemployed and "discouraged", who is going to buy the crap these robots are making?  Other robots? Maybe the tech wizards will create electronic consumers and we can dispense with people entirely.
The New Reality Quiz: 
First, last week's quiz question: Given the astronomically high profits enjoyed by fossil fuel companies over the years, and given all the environmental problems caused by fossil fuel extraction and consumption, one might not expect that governments would subsidize fossil fuel consumption and production.  One would be wrong.  Take a shot at the total worldwide annual subsidy for fossil fuel industries.  Hint: you only need to be within $10 Billion to win.  Answer: $700 Billion.  Now, $600 Billion is in the form of subsidizing fuel costs so low-income citizens can afford the stuff and without which subsidy these countries' economies would likely collapse, but it's still subsidy in my book.  "Only" $100 Billion directly subsidizes fossil fuel production.
This bi-weeks quiz question: 
In 1940, 40% of America's electricity was produced by renewable, relatively clean and somewhat less relatively environmentally benign, hydroelectric generation.  Since 1940, the amount of hydroelectric power generated in America has increased over 500%.  So, what percentage of America's electrical consumption is produced by hydroelectric generation today?
Hope you have (or had, more likely) a pleasant Labor Day holiday.  Back on September 12th with more from Wingspread.


The New Reality Initiative Spreads its Wings - Part 1: Preparing for the Flight | August 15, 2014

johnson-foundWell, I'm back.  Some of you may recall that the New Reality Check checked out about two months ago in the face of a very busy summer for yours truly, the author.  Much of the busy-ness had to do with the most ambitious undertaking yet for the Partnership's New Reality Initiative: a collaborative effort of five national and international organizations and our host, the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread,  instigated also by yours truly on behalf of the Partnership, to gather foundation leadership for an in-depth interaction with the interrelated suite of issues we call the New Reality.
It was a remarkable event, and its impact is already beginning to reach across the nation.  That said, much of what this gathering will produce is not yet known, and may never be fully knowable.  What is clear is that this event has at least developed legs, and maybe even wings, and is on the move.  To help the readers of this blog to get a sense of what it was like to participate in "Navigating the New Reality of Economy, Energy and Environment - A Workshop for Philanthropic Leaders," I will share first the short summary reading and detailed agenda participants received in preparation for their coming to Wingspread.  In time, as these things are ready, I will also share the annotated PowerPoint presentations given by the Institute for Integrated Economic Research (IIER) and by me, as well as the final report being drafted for release by the Johnson Foundation.
So first, the preparatory reading: The New Reality: a brief synopsis and some reading material.  This three page paper was prepared by IIER for this event and does a nice job of setting the stage for subsequent discussions. Very useful and up-to-date information for New Reality Check readers too. Second, the detailed agenda lays out what we hoped to accomplish and who was on hand to accomplish it with.  It also has some very interesting information about Wingspread and some remarkable things that have come out of Wingspread gatherings; things like National Public Radio, just to name one you'll likely recognize.

The Connection 
There were two main themes stressed throughout the conference.  One was how resource depletion and environmental degradation already impact - and will increasingly drive - the economy.  The other is the significant impact this will have on poor and vulnerable people, and how to think about what to do about that.  That, combined with the fact that participants in this event have the resources and ability to influence how our society deals with poverty in the challenging years ahead, is the connection.
Digging Deeper 
Part of my own preparation for the Wingspread conference was to go and hear a lecture by Dr. Nate Hagens, on deck to be one of the main presenters at Wingspread.  Nate is a good friend of the Partnership's New Reality Initiative, having been a presenter at the Partnership's 2010 Wye River retreat and extremely helpful in recruiting participants for Wingspread's "Navigating the New Reality."  Nate's thinking and study on New Reality issues is ever evolving and always interesting, and I wanted to get a good handle on his current perspectives before the July 16 - 18th gathering.  So on July 10th, I headed off to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to hear the latest Nate.  This is great stuff, both in the new perspectives he offers and as a great overall presentation of the serious predicament industrial civilization has created for itself.  His understanding of human behavior, and particularly our tendency to do things that we know are harmful to ourselves and others, is both entertaining and illuminating.   Nate is well known in these circles, the event was well attended, and the presentation well received.  And yes, the white pony tail and black suspenders near the front serve to prove that I was, indeed, present and awake throughout.  Sit back in something comfortable, sip something comforting, and spent a most engaging and informative hour and a half with Nate Hagens.  You won't regret it.  The PowerPoint slides are a bit hard to read sometimes, but the audio is good and the overall presentation comes through well.  Link here:
The New Reality Quiz  
First, the last quiz question (which I had totally forgotten.)  So, all this talk of wealth makes me think of gold.  Now gold is pretty interesting stuff, but its high price has created an illegal mining industry that exploits desperately poor laborers, including children, and exposes them and their environments to extremely high levels of toxins like mercury, cyanide and truly horrendous working conditions.  What percent of the worlds annual gold production comes from these unregulated, illegal mining operations?  Answer: 12%, and that 12% produces as much or more very nasty pollution than the regulated 88%.
This Bi-Week's Quiz Question: 
Given the astronomically high profits enjoyed by fossil fuel companies over the years, and given all the environmental problems caused by fossil fuel extraction and consumption, one might not expect that governments would subsidize fossil fuel consumption and production.  One would be wrong.  Take a shot at the total worldwide annual subsidy for fossil fuel industries.  Hint: you only need to be within $10 Billion to win.
Off to DC for the Partnership's Annual Convention and Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of LBJ's declaration of a total war on poverty.  Back to you on August 29th.


Welcome to the Club | June 20, 2014

For the past 42 years, whenever anyone referred to the seminal 1972 book, Limits to Growth, as a report to the Club of Rome, I have wondered, mildly, what the heck the Club of Rome was.  It sounded vaguely foreign, presumptuous, and a bit menacing, but that mild curiosity never actually moved me to actually find out.  Until now.   Having just spent three days with Limits to Growth lead researcher, MIT scientist (at the time) Dr. Dennis Meadows, at the "Age of Limits" conference in Pennsylvania over the Memorial Day Weekend, I have come to be very interested indeed in the Club of Rome.  And a fan.  Here's why.
First, a little history.  Since I can't tell it better than they do themselves, here is their story:

  • In April 1968, a small international group of professionals from the fields of diplomacy, industry, academia and civil society met at a quiet villa in Rome. Invited by Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei and Scottish scientist Alexander King, they came together to discuss the dilemma of prevailing short-term thinking in international affairs and, in particular, the concerns regarding unlimited resource consumption in an increasingly interdependent world.

    Each participant in the meeting agreed to spend the next year raising the awareness of world leaders and major decision-makers on the crucial global issues of the future. They would offer a new and original approach in doing this, focusing on the long-term consequences of growing global interdependence and applying systems-thinking in order to understand why and how it was happening. The Club of Rome was born.

    The originality of their approach soon became clear. In 1972 the campaigning of this growing group of like-minded individuals gained a new worldwide reputation with the first report to the Club of Rome: “The Limits to Growth”, commissioned by the Club from a group of systems scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Report explored a number of scenarios and stressed the choices open to society to reconcile sustainable progress within environmental constraints.

    The international effects of this publication in the fields of politics, economics and science are best described as a ‘Big Bang’: over night, the Club of Rome had demonstrated the contradiction of unlimited and unrestrained growth in material consumption in a world of clearly finite resources and had brought the issue to the top of the global agenda.

    With its focus on long-term vision and provocative scenarios, the report sold more than 12 million copies in some 30 languages worldwide.

    Building on this success, the Club of Rome membership grew as it continued to produce reports on the global issues it identified. Particularly, the goal of raising long-term awareness among world leaders and decision-makers regarding the delicate interaction between human economic development and the fragility of the planet was achieved, contributing to the establishment of Ministries of the Environment in numerous countries.

And what are they doing now?

  • At the beginning of the 21st Century, international problems such as rising global inequality, the consequences of climate change and the overuse of natural resources have proved that the Club of Rome’s fundamental views are broadly correct and have revived interest in its activities: unlimited consumption and growth on a planet with limited resources cannot go on forever and is indeed dangerous.

    In recent years, the Club of Rome has embarked on a whole new range of activities and has modernized its organization and its mission. Its commitment to finding new and practical ways of understanding global problems and turning its thinking into action are as strong as ever.

In short, these folks are doing internationally pretty much exactly what the New Reality Initiative is doing on a much smaller scale here in America - connecting global resource, environment and economic issues with concerns over the fate of the poor, and trying to do something about it.  Furthermore, as Limits to Growth co-author, Jorgen Randers,  put it in 2012: "The Club of Rome continues its tradition of asking unpopular questions and promoting unpopular solutions."  And why is this courageous work important?  It is important because the popular questions and popular solutions are utterly failing to move us off our catastrophic, accelerating trajectory toward societal and ecological collapse.  That's why. 

So this post's featured links are two videos, the first being a talk Dennis Meadows gave at the Smithsonian Institution on March 9, 2012 on the 40th anniversary of the release of Limits to Growth.  (The original 1972 release event was also held at the Smithsonian.)  Dr. Meadows' talk was entitled: "Perspectives on Limits to Growth:  It is Too Late for Sustainable Development."  Here is how he defines perhaps the most important task facing humanity at this time in history:
"How can global society organize itself to provide a just, peaceful, equitable, decent living for its people?"
Central to his presentation is the calculation that in 1972 when Limits to Growth was released, humanity was consuming resources at roughly 85% of the planets ability to continuously provide them; the "carrying capacity" of the planet.  By 2012, humanity was consuming 150% of the planets carrying capacity, and we will soon enter... "a period of uncontrolled decline which will bring us to some new equilibrium whose features we are not able to perceive yet."  Says Meadows:  "If we go through this period without foreknowledge and without preparation, I fear we will strip away many of our fundamental values."  (Think:  "Preparing Poor America for Harder Times Ahead;" the subtitle of the Community Action Partnership's 2011 "Facing the New Realty" report.)
And that's the harsh but unavoidable reality to which we must adapt.  The "unavoidable" claim is illustrated below in this graph; a depiction of two of the twelve Limits to Growth projections in four major global categories;  population, industrial output, consumption of non-renewable resources, and pollution.  The green line is the "standard run;" the business-as-usual run which leads to societal collapse.  The blue line is the "stabilized world;" a societal change scenario which leads to a sustainable equilibrium.  The purple dots are actual data since the Limits to Growth was published.  Note which trajectory we are on.  These findings by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in 2009 have recently been confirmed by their Australian counterpart through 2013, and again, actual data puts us still close to dead center on the green lines.
I also have to confess to some degree of personal identification with the following quote from his talk.  "When I speak the truth, it tends to be easy for people to become pessimistic and resigned, or simply to label me a lunatic and reject the message totally."  And yet, Meadows' stated goal (mine too) is mastery of the issues, and optimism.  Tricky, but possible, methinks.
In any event, while Limits to Growth and its authors have been roundly denounced and discredited by the market economists whose views have largely shaped our understanding of economics in the decades since Limits to Growth was published, I am quite convinced that history will be very kind to Dr. Meadows and his team.  They weren't wrong after all; the rest of the world just failed to recognize the truth and respond appropriately.
Despite his lofty academic credentials, Meadows delivers his message very plainly.  "We have left a period of easy dumps, cheap resources, and open space and are now having to cope with expensive resources and pollution that bites back when we dump it."  The New Reality.  Or this:  "We are stuck in a system now where politics and the market systematically drive us over the cliff."
This is an important speech with much more content than these brief excerpts can capture.  The link:
Digging Deeper 
In the video above, Dr. Meadows briefly brings us up to date from the 1972 release of Limits to Growth forty years ago, to our present reality.  In the second video, Limits to Growth co-author, Norwegian scholar Dr. Jorgen Randers takes us out forty years into the future with a speech launching his 2012 report to the Club of Rome: 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years. This too is very interesting and challenging stuff.  Randers faults "short termism" and "slow decision processes" among the nations of the world as primary causes of our global failure to avoid much hardship and suffering that would have been avoidable had we acted sooner and with a longer worldview.
Jorgen forecasts a world that is especially hard on the poor with the chilling prediction that.. "The world will be able to produce enough food for those who can pay and will not produce food for those who can't."  His models project that pollution will be the main driver of human societies eventual collapse, and correctly notes that this is a consequence mainly of the overconsumption of world's rich societies.  He says: "My daughter has a (ecological) footprint that is ten times larger than an (east) Indian daughter," and calls for actions like.. "the construction of a low-carbon energy system in the poor world for the poor world paid for by the rich world."  Sounds more than fair to me.
Again, this book is now on my "read soon" list, and this speech has much more rich content than these brief notes can convey.  This is interesting, important and provocative stuff.  While worth a look:

The Connection 
Jorgen Randers' speech was given at the Annual Conference of the World Wildlife Fund in the Netherlands, and in this speech and in a panel response from the Sheila Murry, Director of the Club of Rome - Canada, and from Yolanda Kakakbadse, the international President of the World Wildlife Fund; great compassion and concern was expressed for the fate of the world's poor and vulnerable people.  These folks clearly understand that fate of their primary concerns, like wildlife, are bound tightly to the fate of us all.  As I noted in the last New Reality post, we in Community Action need to develop the same understanding and reach out to these new partners in our common goal of building the best possible future for us all.
The New Reality Quiz 

First, last bi-week's quiz question: If you took all the wealth controlled by the 3.5 Billion people who constitute the poorest 1/2 of the world's population and balanced it against the wealth of the richest folks in the world, how many people - from the wealthiest person on down the list of descending richitude - would it take to equal the wealth of the bottom 3.5 Billion?  Answer: 85.  That's right, according to OXFAM data, the entire group of the world's wealthiest individuals who control as much wealth as the entire bottom 3.5 Billion people could fit comfortably on a London double-decker bus.
This bi-week's New Reality Quiz Question: 
So, all this talk of wealth makes me think of gold.  Now gold is pretty interesting stuff, but its high price has created an illegal mining industry that exploits desperately poor laborers, including children, and exposes them and their environments to extremely high levels of toxins like mercury, cyanide and truly horrendous working conditions.  What percent of the worlds annual gold production comes from these unregulated, illegal mining operations?
Busy Summer 
I am off next week to the Community Action Partnership's annual Spring board meeting at the site of our upcoming 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty Community Action Conference in Washington, DC.  When I get back, I will be devoting what time and creativity I have left - after the demands of the day job and life on the farm - to an upcoming convening of national foundation leadership at the Johnson Foundation's Frank Lloyd Wright designed Wingspread facility in Racine, Wisconsin, July 16 - 18th.  The event is called Navigating the New Reality of Economy, Energy and Environment and is a collaborative effort of four national and one international organization, instigated by the Community Action Partnership's New Reality Initiative.  Foundation  interest in this meeting has been very high, and I will be presenting on addressing poverty in the New Reality.  The following week, I am off to Washington DC for a conference of the White House Rural Council, and after one day at home, I then take my youngest daughter to an intensive week-long Suzuki Music Institute to advance her mastery of the cello, with our state Community Action Association annual Board Retreat the week following.  (WHEW!) Why am I burdening you with all of this info?  To explain why the New Reality Check is checking out until August 15th.  By then, I hope to have processed the Age of Limits and the Wingspread New Reality conferences, and to have something worthwhile to say about them.  Have a great summer!



And Now for Something Completely Different | June 5, 2014







Over the past two and a half years, the New Realty Check has sought to more fully understand and respond to some of the most important trends shaping our present world, and which are poised to dramatically transform our future.  We have examined resource depletion, environmental degradation, and economic stagnation and turmoil primarily from the perspective of growing financial hardship and inequity for America's low income families and  communities.
The featured article for this post, however, looks at these same trends through a very different but very important lens: Global Public Health.  One of the most interesting and hopeful things to appear on my flat screen for some time, this piece is a Manifesto, no less, issued by probably the world's most prestigious, peer reviewed medical journal, The Lancet, no less.  From the introduction

  • This manifesto for transforming public health calls for a social movement to support collective public health action at all levels of society. Our aim is to respond to the threats we face: threats to human health and wellbeing, threats to the sustainability of our civilization, and threats to the natural and human-made systems that support us.

    Our vision is for a planet that nourishes and sustains the diversity of life with which we co-exist and on which we depend. Our goal is to create a movement for planetary health.

It is also refreshingly obvious that the folks at the Lancet see the whole picture clearly and are willing to step outside of their traditional field - medicine - to boldly state their unambiguous convictions regarding the seriousness of our environmental crisis and the seriousness of the social inequity that increasing defines our global society.  An excerpt from the Manifesto:

  • Our patterns of overconsumption are unsustainable and will ultimately cause the collapse of our civilization. The harms we continue to inflict on our planetary systems are a threat to our very existence as a species. The gains made in health and wellbeing over recent centuries, including through public health actions, are not irreversible; they can easily be lost, a lesson we have failed to learn from previous civilizations. We have created an unjust global economic system that favors a small, wealthy elite over the many who have so little.

    The idea of unconstrained progress is a dangerous human illusion: success brings new and potentially even more dangerous threats. Our tolerance of neoliberalism and transnational forces dedicated to ends far removed from the needs of the vast majority of people, and especially the most deprived and vulnerable, is only deepening the crisis we face.

There is more to it than this, of course, and it is all good, strong stuff.  Finally, this article does one thing more:  It provides a simple but effective way to do something about it:  Sign the Manifesto. I did, and so did Don Mathis on behalf of the Community Action Partnership.  Here is the link:
The Connection 
As evident in the quotes above, this Manifesto strongly addresses two of our important values; social justice and equal access to good health outcomes for low income households; the issue that always ranks as the top concern of low income persons in our tri-annual needs assessment.  All of these things are inter-related.  We in Community Action, like the courageous folks from the Lancet, also need to step outside of our "poverty alleviation programs" box and make common cause with the public health community, the environmental community and others whose concerns and issues overlap ever more deeply with ours as we move further into the New Reality.
Digging Deeper 
In addition to Planetary Health now being promoted by the Lancet, the provision of local and community health care services also faces some severe challenges from the drivers of the New Reality.  This is a big topic, and this deeper dig only begins to frame the issue, but it does so in some new and potentially useful ways.  The link is a review of a chapter in a new book by New Reality friend and author, Dmitry Orlav.  The book is titled: Communities That Abide.  The Chapter:  ”Appropriate Health Care for a World In Flux: A Strategy.”  Here is a taste:
In the end, Dr. Truong reminds us, your health care begins with you and ends with your friends:

  • “Take care of yourself first. This is known as the “airline oxygen mask doctrine”: In case of cabin depressurization, put your own mask on first, then help those beside you. This seems counterintuitive to prospective lay healers, but it holds true. If everyone adopted this policy, we would all be more self-reliant and resilient and more able to pass on a surplus of caring.”

    “We need to get away from some of the taboos and hangups of our current medical model. One of them is the prohibition against treating people you know socially, friends and family. In a small town like mine, this is already difficult. In an even smaller community, it would be impossible. I would propose that it is undesirable in the first place. Some of the proudest care I’ve ever given, I’ve given to people close to me.”

    “I would remind people to cherish community and the help of others, as they are the cornerstone of a resilient health care system. Other people are the best, most effective tool in your first aid kit.

And the link to the review: Unfortunately, the book itself sold out its first, and according to Orlav only, printing (Happily, I procured a copy from Mr. Orlav himself at the Age of Limits conference.) but will be released soon in as an e-Book.  Check Dmitry's blog site: ClubOrlav.

The New Reality Quiz  
First, last tri-week's quiz question: Over its lifetime, a molecule of excess, fossil fuel-produced CO2 in the atmosphere traps more heat than was generated when that molecule was created during combustion.  How much more?  A) 10X,  B) 1000X,  C)  100,000X or D)  1,000,000X?  Answer?  C) 100,000X   That's why CO2 get so much attention in the press on climate change.

gas This bi-week's New Reality Quiz Question:  If you took all the wealth controlled by the 3.5 Billion people who constitute the poorest 1/2 of the world's population and balanced it against the wealth of the richest folks in the world, how many people - from the wealthiest person on down the list of descending richitude - would it take to equal the wealth of the bottom 3.5 Billion?








Storm Clouds, Solar Warriors, and the CIA | May 18, 2014

 storm-cloudsOur last post on May 2nd focused on recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and some surprisingly grim assessments of our climate predicament from this highly credentialed and generally conservative body.  While many members of the PPA (People Paying Attention) around the globe were just beginning to get their heads around these IPCC reports, the US Global Change Research Program, a joint effort of thirteen federal agencies, released its Congressionally mandated 2014 National Climate Assessment (see Digging Deeper below), a report that echoed and in some cases amplified findings of the IPCC as they relate to specific regions of America.  Conclusion?  We are in big trouble, and if we don't we get in gear soon with some effective changes to business as usual, we face an environmental and economic catastrophe.  As expected in politically deadlocked Washington, the political opposition to the President and their increasingly isolated band of fellow climate deniers, went to work immediately to discredit the report and its 300 scientist contributors to make sure that getting in gear soon is exactly what won't happen.
So who is riding in to try and rescue this white dominated industrial society from its self-destructive path?  Well, this is pretty interesting - with a strong dose of irony.  It turns out to be the descendents of the culture that white America's ancestors tried mightily to obliterate in the 19th and early 20th centuries: the group generally known as American Indians.  In fact, around the globe, the Indigenous Peoples of a world once colonized by Europe are rising to defend their ancient homelands from perhaps the most devastating form of colonization yet; the colonization of the planet by global industrialization with its resource-devouring pursuit of profits and its perverse sense of progress.  As Noam Chomsky wrote just last week:

  • We might wish to consider a remarkable paradox of the current era. There are some who are devoting serious efforts to avert impending disaster. In the lead are the most oppressed segments of the global population, those considered to be the most backward and primitive: the indigenous societies of the world, from First Nations in Canada, to aboriginals in Australia, to tribal people in India, and many others. In countries with influential indigenous populations, like Bolivia and Ecuador, there is by now legislative recognition of rights of nature. The government of Ecuador actually proposed to leave their supplies of oil in the ground, where they should be, if the rich countries would provide them development aid amounting to a small fraction of what they would sacrifice by not exploiting their oil resources. The rich countries refused.

 Here at home in the upper Midwest, Winona LaDuke of the White Earth Band of Ojibwa recently honored Henry Red Cloud in an article entitled; "Solar Warriors vs. the Black Snake of Tar Sands."  She notes:  

  • This past week, Henry Red Cloud, a descendent of Chief Red Cloud and President of Lakota Solar Enterprises, was recognized as a Champion of Change by President Obama for his leadership in renewable energy. Red Cloud’s work has included installation of over 1000 solar thermal heating units on houses in tribal communities across the Northern Plains. Those units can reduce heating bills by almost one quarter, and cost, less than $2000 to install. The solar thermal panels harken a future with less reliance on propane and fossil fuels, something which proved deadly this winter, as the price skyrocketed, and many homes spent at least that amount to heat.  

Yet despite this recognition from our "green recovery" President, Mr. Chomsky also notes: 

  • There is now much exuberance in the United States about “100 years of energy independence” as we become “the Saudi Arabia of the next century.” One might take a speech of President Obama’s two years ago to be an eloquent death-knell for the species. He proclaimed with pride, to ample applause, that “Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That's important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.”  (Note:  It is more than a little difficult to reconcile the quote above with this line from the President's 2014 State of the Union address; "Climate change is a fact.  And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did."  Unfortunately, thanks to those pesky Laws of Nature, you can't have it both ways. - phk)

In contrast, there is a refreshing lack of ambiguity in another president's position quoted in Winona LaDuke's article:

  • Brian Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, told press, “No Keystone XL Black Snake Pipeline will cross Lakota Lands. We will protect our lands and waters and we have our horses ready…"

Which gets us to the CIA.  Nope, not that CIA, but rather an example of what a person like me, a white kid raised in 1960s South Dakota, could view as a test of our ability to deal with cognitive dissonance: This CIA is the Cowboy Indian Alliance, a truly remarkable group who also went to Washington DC recently to protest the Keystone XL pipeline.  You can get a sense of this CIA from the web site "Common Dreams:"

  • “We are writing a new history by standing on common ground by preventing the black snake of Keystone XL from risking our land and water," said Faith Spotted Eagle of the Yankton Sioux tribe and a spokesperson for the Cowboy Indian Alliance (C.I.A.). "We have thousands of Native sacred sites that will be affected adversely. The Americans facing eminent domain now know what it felt like for us to lose land to a foreign country. There is no fairness or rationale to justify the risk of polluting our waterways with benzene and other carcinogens. Native people are ready to speak for the four-leggeds and the grandchildren who cannot speak for themselves. The answer is no pipeline.”
  •  Roger Milk, a member of the Rosebud Sioux, makes it clear: “This just isn’t an Indian thing," he says. "We all drink the same water.”
  • “Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of mankind," adds coalition member Chief Arvol Looking Horse, spiritual leader among the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota people. "Do you think that the creator would create unnecessary people in a time of danger? Know that you are essential to this world. The biggest cancer spreading upon Mother Earth is the tar sands.” (Note: At the other end of the pipeline, the Canadian First Nations are waging a very effective campaign to protect the Athabascan Tar Sands region from further devastation.) 
  • Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, promises the diverse but unified coalition representing front-line communities will bring their "pipeline fighting spirit" to Washington, DC and the Obama White House
  • "The President said he wants to be able to look at his daughters and say ‘yes he did’ do everything he could to combat climate change," said Kleeb. "We intend to ensure he honors his word.”

Here is the link to Winonal LaDuke's piece:  

And here for the Common Dreams article on the CIA:  "Cowboy Indian Alliance Steps Forward in Earth's Time of Need:"

Both more extensive than the quotes above and well worth the read.
The Connection 

What I find so inspiring about both of these articles is that many of the key activists in these stories are among the poorest people in the poorest counties in America, and yet they not only rise to defend their own lands and lives, they rise to defend us all.  As Community Action recognizes 50 years of fighting poverty, we need to reflect on the courage of those Civil Rights activists and the other struggles that ushered in our movement.  We will need such courage and leadership again as we move deeper into the New Reality struggles that are shaping the poverty fight ahead.
Digging Deeper 
The deeper dig here is an invitation once again to go the source and see for yourself.  The National Climate Assessment has a great web site; very useful and easily searchable by overview, findings and particularly useful for us geographically identified organizations; by regions.  Here is a taste from the overview

  • Other changes are even more dramatic. Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Insurance rates are rising in some vulnerable locations, and insurance is no longer available in others. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage. In Arctic Alaska, the summer sea ice that once protected the coasts has receded, and autumn storms now cause more erosion, threatening many communities with relocation.

  This report lays it out in plain English.  Here's the home page link for the National Climate Assessment:

The New Reality Quiz  
First, last week's quiz question: In order to keep the impoverished seniors who rely solely on social security from losing the purchasing power of their meager monthly checks, the amount they are paid each year is increased to keep up with inflation.  This year's increase was 1.5%.  This makes perfect sense because overall food prices this year have only risen by:  A) 1.2%   B)1.7%   C) 4.2%  or D) 20%?  Answer: D)  20%  You might mention this the next time someone proposes cutting Social Security.  Hint: Their secret code for this is the innocuous sounding "chained CPI."
This bi-week's New Reality Quiz question:
  Over its lifetime, a molecule of excess, fossil fuel-produced CO2 in the atmosphere traps more heat than was generated when that molecule was created during combustion.  How much more?  A) 10X,  B) 1000X,  C)  100,000X or D)  1,000,000X?
Finally, I am off to see the Wizard once again, the Green Wizard that is, John Michael Greer, and other friends of the New Reality Initiative like Dmitry Orlav, who will be presenting at the 2014 Age of Limits Conference in Pennsylvania over the Memorial Day weekend.  As usual, I expect to return to a hill of work and may need some time to process new information, so expect to see the New Reality Check again on June 6th.


How to Turn an Oil Tanker Around | May 2, 2014

"Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere." -Elrond, From J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring

It's raining in western Wisconsin this morning, while our neighboring Minnesotans report having just experienced the second rainiest April in history, with four of the wettest Aprils ever all occurring since 2001.  Meanwhile, across the South, fierce tornados and flooding rains remind us that it's Springtime in the New Reality.  You see, the climate has changed, and according to three major reports recently released by the Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), much more change and much worse impacts are on the way unless we take some drastic  and effective measures to change the course we are on: in effect, we need to turn this massive oil tanker around.  And soon.  This post is about a possible way to do just that.

But first, a couple of comments on these IPCC reports.  In 2014, the IPCC is releasing their Fifth Assessment Report.  In their words:

  • The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) provides a clear and up to date view of the current state of scientific knowledge relevant to climate change. It consists of three Working Group (WG) reports and a Synthesis Report (SYR) which integrates and synthesizes material in the WG reports for policymakers. The SYR will be finalized on 31 October 2014.

The three working group reports have already been released, and getting these out has been a massive undertaking involving no fewer than 803 authors and over 80 countries.  The three working group (WG) reports are entitled: WG I  Climate Change 2013: The Science Basis

WG II  Climate Change 2014: Impact, Adaptation and Vulnerability

WG III  Climate Change 2014: Mitigations of Climate Change

Links to PDF's of each report, Summaries for Policy Makers, and each report's own web site (each web site also has a short but very interesting video) can all be found here:

Two things stand out from the WG III report.  Thing 1: The Global effort at Climate Change mitigation is failing.  From the report summary:

  • Total anthropogenic GHG emissions have continued to increase over 1970 to 2010 with larger absolute decadal increases toward the end of this period.

Or for the visually oriented:




And again:

  • Without additional efforts to reduce GHG emissions beyond those in place today, emissions growth is expected to persist driven by growth in global population and economic activities. Baseline scenarios, those without additional mitigation, result in global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 from 3.7 to 4.8°C (6.7 to 8.6° F) compared to pre‐industrial levels (Note: it is now generally accepted that any increase over 2° C = a horrific Climate Catastrophe. phk)

Thing 2:  Because these IPCC reports need to be approved by all the participating governments, they have always been conservative in their claims.  Translation: It's probably a lot worse than even this somber report claims.

For those of us in the human service arena, a couple of excerpts stand out from WG II: Impact, Adaptation and Vulnerability:

  • Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence). Impacts of such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being. For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sector. 

And The Connection to those of us working specifically to alleviate poverty:

  • Climate-related hazards exacerbate other stressors, often with negative outcomes for livelihoods, especially for people living in poverty (high confidence). Climate-related hazards affect poor people’s lives directly through impacts on livelihoods, reductions in crop yields, or destruction of homes and indirectly through, for example, increased food prices and food insecurity. Observed positive effects for poor and marginalized people, which are limited and often indirect, include examples such as diversification of social networks and of agricultural practices.

 OK, so this is a small out-take from a huge body of research, but the message could not be more clear:  We need to do everything we can to get off the Business As Usual track and soon.  We have to turn this Oil Tanker around, and by "we" I don't mean the "the great" (read Governments and the IPCC, however well meaning) from the opening Tolkien quote; I mean "we" the : "small hands [who] do [these deeds] because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere."

But is such a thing even possible?  Well, these folks think so, and they just might be right.  On to....
Digging Deeper  
Some of you may remember (even I can dream...) the December 20th, 2013 New Reality Check: "The Saddest and Most Hopeful True Story I Know: Part 2 - The Hopeful Part"  It reported on terra preta, the pre-Columbian method of building the fertility of Amazon Basin soils by adding to those nutrient-poor soils a form of charcoal now called bio-char, and the potential of a modern form of this practice to sequester carbon from the atmosphere to slow or even reverse climate change.  This bi-week's deep dig takes a look at a promising new report from the Rodale Institute that seeks to accomplish the same climate change reversal through another agricultural technique it calls Regenerative Organic Agriculture.  Thus the title: "Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming."  A taste:

  • We are at the most critical moment in the history of our species, as manmade changes to the climate threaten humanity’s security on Earth. In 2012, total annual global emissions of greenhouse gases were approximately 52 GtCO2e. These emissions must soon drop to a net of 41 GtCO2e if we are to have a feasible chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C, above which point we dare not pass.  (Note the even more conservative estimate of tolerable warming.  phk)

    We suggest an obvious and immediately available solution – put the carbon back to work in the terrestrial carbon “sinks” that are literally right beneath our feet. Excess carbon in the atmosphere is surely toxic to life, but we are, after all, carbon-based life forms, and returning stable carbon to the soil can support ecological abundance.

    Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term “regenerative organic agriculture.” These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect. 

    We don’t have to wait for technological wizardry: regenerative organic agriculture can substantially mitigate climate change, now.

    Agriculture that sequesters carbon is also agriculture that addresses our planetary water crisis, extreme poverty, and food insecurity while protecting and enhancing the environment now and for future generations.

    Regenerative organic agriculture improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. It is a holistic systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual wellbeing.

    Changing farming practices to organic, regenerative and agroecological systems can increase soil organic carbon stocks, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, maintain yields, improve water retention and plant uptake, improve farm profitability, and revitalize traditional farming communities while ensuring biodiversity and resilience of ecosystem services. Regenerative organic agriculture is also integral to the climate solution. 

For what it's worth, having dabbled in the sustainable/organic agriculture scene for about 40 years, I believe that all these statements could be true.  The catch, of course, is the huge chasm between what could be done and what will be done.  Ah, there's the rub.  And yet, there are a couple of other dimensions to this idea that make particularly strong connections to those of us concerned about poverty.
Connection #1.  Depending on how it is practiced, especially small-scale organic agriculture often requires  little up-front money because it requires few high-cost inputs like synthetic fertilizers, costly insecticides and pesticides, patented GMO seeds and the like. So it can be an affordable practice and food source and even a profitable small business enterprise for low income folks.  It can be, however, very labor intensive.  Which gets us to....
Connection #2.  The need for largely unskilled labor.  As rapidly advancing computer-based technology and robotics - what we used to call "automation" - greatly reduces the labor required for manufacturing and even a growing host of service jobs, and thus reduces the value of that labor, poverty will only increase.  If we come to realize that humanity desperately needs Regenerative Organic Agriculture to stave off catastrophic climate change, then the value of that unskilled labor may be greatly enhanced, the number of jobs greatly increased, and poverty reduced.  Sounds like a win-win to me!
The temptation to call this study "ground breaking" is irresistible, and also true.  Our literal survival as a species may well rest on this kind of agricultural practice.  Yes, it is that important.  So here's the link (I also noted with some amusement that this page on the Rodale web site was headed "Dig Deeper")

The New Reality Quiz  

But first, last bi-week's quiz question:  So, what do you suppose will happen next to America's gas fracking boom?  (hint: it's a four-letter word that starts with "b")  Answer: BUST.  Don't believe it?  Check this out.. , and that's just on the environmental side.  The economic bust was the New Reality Quiz answer last bi-week noting that the top five gas fracking operations lost $53 Billion from 2008 - 2013.

This bi-week's New Reality Quiz  question
In order to keep the impoverished seniors who rely solely on social security from losing the purchasing power of their meager monthly checks, the amount they are paid each year is increased to keep up with inflation.  This year's increase was 1.5%.  This makes perfect sense because overall food prices this year have only risen by:  A) 1.2%   B)1.7%   C) 4.2%  or D) 20%?
Back again on May 16th.  Til then, have a great Spring!


 Becoming Animated | April 18, 2014

I would love to report that America and the rest of the world is finally mobilizing to effectively respond to the many serious challenges posed by the New Reality, as this post's title might suggest.  Sadly, that it not yet the case.  Instead the title refers to a rather amazing attempt by a professional animator, Dermot O'Connor, to capture the essence of what we call "The New Reality" in one 33 minute animated film.  This remarkable little film manages to do a very credible job of laying out pretty much everything a person probably needs to know about:

  • How and when petroleum, natural gas and coal were formed
  • The history of fossil fuel extraction
  • The role of energy in our modern economy
  • The fundamentals of energy physics
  • A review and critique of the limitations of renewable and other alternative energy sources
  • Our debt-based monetary system
  • Exponential math and the physical Limits to Growth
  • Food, water, and the rest of environment as they relate to humans
  • A bio-regions carrying capacity and population overshoot
  • And finally, what we ought to be doing about all of the above.

Not bad for a 33 minute cartoon.  In fact, having studied all this stuff quite intensely for most of the last decade, there are few things in this little animation that I would quibble about, most of them quite minor, with one rather glaring exception: Dermot O'Connor completely ignores climate change in this film.  No idea why.  And I don't like his film's title - There's No Tomorrow - in part because it doesn't fit his ending, but mostly because I do not believe that the end point of all this is necessarily Doom and Gloom.  But that said, as an overview or introduction to these really important New Reality issues, or as a way to reach out to the growing ranks of "graphic learners" among us, this is a remarkable piece of work.  It is also, apparently, its creator's freely offered gift to the world.  That counts.  Here is the link:

The Connection 
One thing that I have become ever more convinced of as we move further into the New Reality, is that we need to become better educated in our basic understanding of how the physical world actually works.  Without this basic scientific knowledge, we will not be able to sort through the growing levels of propaganda, misinformation, baseless opinions, and simple nonsense that shapes the popular narrative these days and keeps us from responding appropriately to the dramatic changes unfolding around us.  That failure will prove catastrophic, especially for the poor and vulnerable folks Community Action exists to serve.  This little animation is a pretty good place to start.

Digging Deeper 
While the animation above touches on the theoretical limits to economic growth, this bi-week's deeper dig expands on that theme with a talk that our good friend Richard Heinberg gave in Vancouver in February 2012; very near the same time that There's No Tomorrow was released.  The talk is simply entitled: "Richard Heinberg on The End of Growth".  This too is a remarkable film for much the same reason noted for the film above:  It packs a ton of excellent and essential information into 39 minutes.  I have heard Richard speak live on several occasions, and have seen him often on video, and I think this talk is his best yet.  It is clear, concise, thorough and convincing; a good review for us regulars or a good introduction -  especially to the economic dimensions of the New Reality - for anyone you may be able to bribe, trick, or otherwise coerce into taking 39 of their precious minutes to become seriously  enlightened on some issues of real importance to them and to us all.  Here is the link:

The New Reality Quiz 
First, last bi-week's quiz question: Between 2008 and 2013, the top five natural gas fracking companies in America between them:  A) earned $53 Billion on their gas fracking operations,  B) earned $21.5 Billion on their gas fracking operations,  C)  barely broke even on their gas fracking operations,  D)  lost $21.5 Billion on their gas fracking operations, or E) lost $53 Billion on their gas fracking operations.  Answer: E) they lost $53 Billion on their gas fracking operations.

This bi-week's quiz question:
  So, what do you suppose will happen next to America's gas fracking boom?  (hint: it's a four-letter word that starts with "b")

Back on May 2nd.  It's snowing here in Wisconsin today, but April snows bring May.... no, that's not it....hmmm


The Emperor Has No Oil | April 4, 2014 

jestersFor a blog post that claims "Reality" as its domain, the arena that calls itself "News" just seems to be getting a little more distant with each passing month.  The dose of reality featured in this post touches on some widely aired news which, for this writer anyway, recalls that great tale of pride and denial; Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes."  It's about our response to Russia's annexation of Crimea (or as I like to call it, the Crimean Citizens Democratically Expressed Right of Self-Determination by voting overwhelmingly to leave a country run by an undemocratically and illegally self-installed coup, but we will set that aside for now as being only slightly germane to the point of this post.  And just for the record, this does not mean I like the deposed guy. I don't. There are more than two choices.)

The article is titled: "The Oil and Gas Weapon Won't Work":  Davis and Leggett on Ukraine.  Here's the intro:

  • After many weeks of political chaos and bloodshed in Kiev, Moscow sent soldiers across the frontier into the Crimea on February 27, claiming it aimed to protect the Russian-speaking population. “Writing in the Washington Post on March 7, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice captured the essence of many in the US who advocate using oil as a weapon against Russia. She wrote that “soon, North America’s bounty of oil and gas will swamp Moscow’s capacity. Authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline and championing natural gas exports would signal that we intend to do precisely that.” Secretary Rice’s assumptions regarding the state of US tight oil and gas as “bountiful” are common among many opinion leaders in the West. They also happen to be wrong.

    Before contemplating the use of US oil and gas as a strategic weapon, it might be useful to review a few key fundamentals. First, consider the following oil production, consumption and import/export numbers reported by British Petroleum for 2012. Russia produced 10.6 million barrels per day (mbd), consumed 3.2 mbd, leaving 7.4 mbd available for export. The United States produced 8.9 mbd, consumed 18.5 mbd, and imported 10.5 mbd.

OK, let's look at that last line again. The United States produced 8.9 mbd, consumed 18.5 mbd, and imported 10.5 mbd.  What does that mean?  It means that after we consume  what we need, we not only have no oil left to throw at the Crimea problem, we have minus 10.6 million barrels of oil per day to saber-rattle with!  It's worth noting too that the lefty tree-hugger providing this information was British Petroleum.

So maybe the former Secretary of State just got a little confused between oil and natural gas; which is a bigger part of the Russia-Ukraine-Crimea story.  Here is where we sit on natural gas:

  • Petroleum geologist and energy analyst Arthur Berman also warns there would be unintended consequences to exporting American natural gas. “The U.S. imports nearly 4 billion cubic feet of gas per day. It seems a bit premature to be discussing natural gas export when you are a net importer and are likely to remain one until at least 2018 according to the EIA.” Lest we forget, conventional gas in the US accounts for almost 60 percent of the total produced and is declining at about 20 percent per year. Unconventional gas, meanwhile, is declining at more than 30 percent each year. “Taken together,” Berman calculates, “the US needs to replace 19 billion cubic feet per day each year to maintain production at flat levels.

And who is this "EIA?"  well, it's the US Department of Energy's own Energy Information Administration and its only a mouse click away.  Try it. It's fun and, more importantly, very easy:

It has a peachy graph with handy rollover features and makes the same point:  After consuming what we consume and weighing what we export against what we import, in 2012 we were net importers of 1.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.  So, the Emperor has no gas either.

So  what's going on here?  The facts are very credible and freely available to any and all (including the Russians) with a couple of mouse clicks, so why would Secretary Rice and literally dozens of other politicians and pundits risk their credibility and reputations by spouting this nonsense?  Well, mostly I am just baffled, but I am beginning to suspect something I have long resisted; that societies behave in much the same way that individuals behave, and in the face of loss, whether the loss of a loved one, a bad diagnosis, or collectively the loss of imperial status or the loss of a cherished dreamed for a future of endless progress and prosperity, we respond to this loss by collectively grieving; and the first stage of that grief is denial.  If someone has a better explanation, I would love to hear it.

Here is the link:     Take a look at the author's info at the end of this article.  Some of you may remember that Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, whose writings have appeared in the New Reality Check before, is the recipient of the 2012 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.  Jeremy Leggett was asked to present his views at the World Economic Summit in Davos this year.  A couple of pretty credible guys.

The Connection 
History is full of examples of societies, or more precisely governments, responding to loss and catastrophe by doubling down on whatever it was that brought them not just to greatness, but beyond greatness to a period of overshoot and decline, and thereby accelerating that decline.  Think Easter Island, Rome, the Soviet Union.  The list is long.  If it turns out that we are on the same track, the wise response may be to get off the train.  What this means back here in normal old reality, we will consider in an upcoming post.

Digging Deeper 
The deeper dig this week goes further into the idea of societies behaving like individuals, though it looks not at grief and loss, but at addiction.  Again, while I started and remain skeptical, the parallels between the behavior of a drug addicted individual and an oil addicted society are more than a little unsettling.  Like our featured article this week, this piece also looks at our irrational behavior in response to the Ukraine - Crimea - Russia situation.  It is written by another important voice on New Reality issues, Michael T. Klare, and it is titled "Carbon Delirium: The Last Stage of Fossil-Fuel Addiction and Its Hazardous Impact on American Foreign Policy" Here is a taste:

  • If a reasonable concern over the fate of the planet were stronger than our reliance on fossil fuels, we would expect to see, if not a reduction in carbon emissions, then a decline at least in the rate of increase of emissions over time.  Instead, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that global emissions will continue to rise at a torrid pace over the next quarter century, reaching 45.5 billion metric tons in 2040 -- more than double the amount recorded in 1998 and enough, in the view of most scientists, to turn our planet into a living hell.  Though seldom recognized as such, this is the definition of addiction-induced self-destruction, writ large.

This is a well-reasoned and interesting piece; if more than a little troubling.  Here is the link:

The New Reality Quiz 
First, last tri-week's quiz  question: In 2013, the big five oil companies combined, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell, earned $177,000 dollars in profits every  A) day,  B) hour,  C) minute, or D) second?  Answer: C)  minute.  And you thought it was every second.  Ha!  C'mon, these guys aren't that greedy....

This bi-week's quiz question:  Between 2008 and 2013, the top five natural gas fracking companies in America between them:  A) earned $53 Billion on their gas fracking operations,  B) earned $21.5 Billion on their gas fracking operations,  C)  barely broke even on their gas fracking operations,  D)  lost $21.5 Billion on their gas fracking operations, or E) lost $53 Billion on their gas fracking operations

Back on April 18th.  Happy Spring!, or as we call it this year in Wisconsin, Winter!

The Lyin' in Winter - Part 2: Environmental Justice | March 14, 2014

angelsThe concept of environmental justice was kicked around in some circles in the late 1970's and early 80s, but for some reason, this issue does not seem to be raised much anymore.  The Weekly New Reality Check did touch on it briefly in an article about mountaintop removal and waterway pollution in Appalachia last year.  And I suspect that this issue will be reinvigorated as we move further into the New Reality, and the ranks of those affected move further into the shrinking middle class.

The concept of environmental justice is pretty simple, though there are a couple of common variations which come at the issue from opposite directions.  In one variation, environments that have been seriously polluted, despoiled or degraded by some industrial or agricultural process or another, lose much of their appeal and value.  As a result, they become affordable or accessible to people with little or no wealth who then tend to inhabit these places.

So in addition to the other ills of poverty, these people also have to deal with the environmental hazards that made the land cheap; hazards that are detrimental to their health, safety, and general quality of life.  The other variation has to do with  where these environmentally degrading processes are located in the first place; and again, if the people to be affected are poor and relatively powerless, it is often their homes and neighborhoods that pay the environmental price.  Like the poor families downstream and downhill from mountaintop removal in Appalachia.  Here is what our friend Wendell Berry had to say about this in a recent interview:

  • Mountaintop removal is as near total destruction as you can imagine, because it does away with the forest, it does away with the topsoil that sustained the forest, it does away with the very topography — even people’s family graveyards go. And it’s done in complete disregard not only of the land but of the people who live downhill, whose lives are threatened, whose water supplies are destroyed, whose homes are damaged. The people downhill, downstream, and ahead of us in time are totally disregarded. (and tend to be poor - phk)

Examples of this environmental injustice are becoming increasingly common as resource depletion, growing population and naked greed drive ever more desperate and destructive measures to obtain the dwindling reserves of industrial resources required to sustain our unsustainable industrial economies.  From mountaintop removal to the almost unimaginable destruction of boreal forests in Canada for the extraction of bitumen hydrocarbons from tar sands, (despite strong opposition from local indigenous Canadians) to the Golf Coast dead zones (destroying generations-old local fishing economies) to the garbage choked shorelines and river banks that are home to countless millions of slum dwellers in "developing" countries to industrial logging and mining in the Amazon Basin to fracking operations in Pennsylvania and North Dakota and to frac sand mining operations right here in west central Wisconsin, the worst of the environmental impacts consistently fall most heavily on the poor and powerless.

Now why is that, do you suppose?  Well, look what happens when Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobile, the largest fracking operations company in the world, takes a gander out the window of his five million dollar Texas mansion and imagines an unsightly water tower appearing -  a proposed water storage facility to support a fracking operation down the road:

  • As ExxonMobil’s CEO, it’s Rex Tillerson’s job to promote the hydraulic fracturing enabling the recent oil and gas boom, and fight regulatory oversight. The oil company is the biggest natural gas producer in the U.S., relying on the controversial drilling technology to extract it.

    The exception is when Tillerson’s $5 million property value might be harmed. Tillerson has joined a lawsuit that cites fracking’s consequences in order to block the construction of a 160-foot water tower next to his and his wife’s Texas home.

    The Wall Street Journal reports the tower would supply water to a nearby fracking site, and the plaintiffs argue the project would cause too much noise and traffic from hauling the water from the tower to the drilling site. The water tower, owned by Cross Timbers Water Supply Corporation, “will sell water to oil and gas explorers for fracing [sic] shale formations leading to traffic with heavy trucks on FM 407, creating a noise nuisance and traffic hazards,” the suit says.

    When he is acting as Exxon CEO, not a homeowner, Tillerson has lashed out at fracking critics and proponents of regulation. “This type of dysfunctional regulation is holding back the American economic recovery, growth, and global competitiveness,” he said in 2012 . Natural gas production “is an old technology just being applied, integrated with some new technologies,” he said in another interview. “So the risks are very manageable.”

    In shale regions, less wealthy residents have protested fracking development for impacts more consequential than noise, including water contamination and cancer risk. Exxon’s oil and gas operations and the resulting spills not only sinks property values, but the spills have leveled homes and destroyed regions .

The link:

If you are  reading the New Reality Check, I probably don't have to expound on why all this suggests a high degree of social injustice.

"But wait", as they say on the late night ads for the Popeil Pocket Fisherman, "there's more."  I am going to suggest that the reality of human generated Global Warming and the devastating effects of the Climate Change resulting  from that warming have opened up a new arena for Environmental Justice; one that coincidently also features Mr. Tillerson and ExxonMobile along with a host of similar folks and organizations.  It goes something like this:

Freedom of speech notwithstanding, everybody understands that it is, in fact, a crime to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre when there is no fire, and if a person does yell "Fire!" when there is no fire, that person is culpable, or criminally responsible for the deaths and injuries that ensue if the crowd panics, rushes the exits, and folks get trampled.  Now let's reverse the scenario; let's say there is a fire in that theatre, but a respected authority, the manager say, gets up on stage and - even though he knows there is a fire, but is crossing his fingers and hoping that the maintenance staff can figure out how to deal with it before it gets out of hand and he has to refund his ticket sale proceeds - grabs a microphone and says something like: "Can I please have your attention folks?  Those small flames and smoke you see over there in the corner are nothing to worry about.  We're just testing some special effects for a live rock concert coming up. Stay in your seats, everything will be fine."  And then he slips out the side door while the theatre becomes engulfed in flames and everybody inside is burned or trampled to death - because the doubt created by the manager's announcement kept the audience unsure of what do to do until it was too late to make a safe and orderly exit.  Is that theatre manager culpable for the deaths of those patrons?  Undoubtedly. So what of ExxonMobile and others who have for years funded PR efforts and junk science to cast doubt on the reality of climate change and have effectively paralyzed the world's efforts to prevent and mitigate the devastating effects of climate change?  Are they not equally culpable for the deaths and destruction caused by the inaction their efforts created?  I can't see why not.  Take this little gem from a 2005 story in the Washington Post:

  • Exxon was criticized by several Senate Democrats in June after it announced the hiring of Philip Cooney, a White House official and former lobbyist with the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group. Cooney had just resigned from the White House after reportedly revising government scientific reports to cast doubt on the link between global warming and the emission of greenhouse gases. (note:  This isn't just ignorance, this is a an act of deliberate malice.  - phk)

And from the Guardian in 2006;

  • ExxonMobil is the world's most profitable corporation. Its sales now amount to more than $1bn a day. It makes most of this money from oil, and has more to lose than any other company from efforts to tackle climate change. To safeguard its profits, ExxonMobil needs to sow doubt about whether serious action needs to be taken on climate change. But there are difficulties: it must confront a scientific consensus as strong as that which maintains that smoking causes lung cancer or that HIV causes Aids. So what's its strategy?

    The website, using data found in the company's official documents, lists 124 organisations that have taken money from the company or work closely with those that have. These organisations take a consistent line on climate change: that the science is contradictory, the scientists are split, environmentalists are charlatans, liars or lunatics, and if governments took action to prevent global warming, they would be endangering the global economy for no good reason. The findings these organisations dislike are labelled "junk science". The findings they welcome are labelled "sound science".

    Among the organisations that have been funded by Exxon are such well-known websites and lobby groups as TechCentralStation, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Some of those on the list have names that make them look like grassroots citizens' organisations or academic bodies: the Centre for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, for example. One or two of them, such as the Congress of Racial Equality, are citizens' organisations or academic bodies, but the line they take on climate change is very much like that of the other sponsored groups. While all these groups are based in America, their publications are read and cited, and their staff are interviewed and quoted, all over the world.

The link:

Now, most of this was undertaken while Rex Tillerson's predecessor, Lee Raymond, was at the helm, but as noted before in this blog, even when Tillerson did surprise a lot of folks as he finally acknowledged the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change in 2013, he dismissed it's seriousness and cast his share of doubt in a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations:

  • ExxonMobil chief executive, Rex Tillerson, has said fears about climate change ,...are overblown.

    In a speech on Wednesday, Tillerson acknowledged that burning of fossil fuels is warming the planet, but said society will be able to adapt.

    Tillerson blamed a public that is "illiterate" in science and math, a "lazy" press, and advocacy groups that "manufacture fear" for energy misconceptions, in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    Tillerson, in a break with predecessor Lee Raymond, acknowledged that global temperatures are rising. "Clearly there is going to be an impact," he said. But he questioned the ability of climate models to predict the magnitude of the impact. He said that people would be able to adapt to rising sea levels and changing climates that may force agricultural production to shift.

    "We have spent our entire existence adapting. We'll adapt," he said. "It's an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution."

The link:

The point here isn't to beat up on Rex or Exxon, there are a host of other unindicted co-conspirators like the Koch brothers, Fox News and others eager to propagate and fuel this debilitating and totally trumped up "debate".  The point is to raise the question of criminal accountability for these dangerous and deeply unpatriotic behaviors.

Speaking of patriots, what then are we to make of the 160 self-identified climate deniers who currently serve in the US House of Representatives?  Are they simply ignorant of the facts like the Flat Earth Society, the Holocaust Deniers and those folks out there who believe that NASA faked the moon landing footage and never really got there?  Or are they knowingly misleading the public; willing to risk the safety and security of America in order to appeal to their voting base, funders, and likely as not these days, future employers in some corporate lobbying firm?  Tough choice, really.  In support of the ignorance theory, there is this rather wry observation made by Upton Sinclair in the 1930s: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on him not understanding it.", but I am guessing that most of these smart folks can grasp the reality of the scientific consensus around anthropogenic climate change, and have seen its devastating effects in their home districts.  I'm not questioning these folks' patriotism, but I this baffling behavior is beyond me. Well, maybe these professed Christians will get the chance someday to explain it to The Judge.  (See painting at the top of this post.)

But while we are still down here, there is another deeply troubling dimension to this aspect of environmental justice; the politicization of science.  As it turns out, 130 of the 160 folks in Congress noted above, happen to be Republicans.  This is crazy.  I attempted to address this absurdity in a talk I gave a few year ago to a largely Republican Rotary Club luncheon.  I held a pen a few inches above the podium and let it drop with a loud clatter.  Then I asked the audience what made that pen fall.  When a couple of brave folks suggest tentatively that the cause was gravity, I replied;  "That's correct.  Now, was it Democratic gravity or Republican gravity?"  Point made, I think, at least to the noon Rotary in Menomonie, Wisconsin.  I fear that our Republican friends will pay dearly for the politicization of Climate Change as this reality becomes increasingly impossible to ignore.

"And if you act now," the Popeil Pocket Fisherman ad goes on, "we will also include.."  Yes, there is one more manifestation of Environmental Justice this post will address:  What happens when we violate the laws of Nature?  This differs from the human criminal code in one important aspect:  There is no ambiguity about the certainty or swiftness of Environmental Justice when Natural Law - the laws of physics, chemistry, geology, and biology - are violated.  This is heart of the New Reality; physical limits, mathematical certainties and environmental justice without appeal are the landscape we are moving into as we continue to squabble and squander our way down the Dark Mountain.  Christ's face in The Last Judgment, Michelangelo's masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel (above), shows no trace of emotion; no compassion, no mercy, no anger, but only a dead certain and inescapable finality.  So it is, and perhaps not coincidentally, with the judgments of Nature.  Only fools break these laws.

The Connection 
For this connection, let's go back up to the burning theatre analogy above, only this time the authority figure comes on stage in time, calms the crowd, and directs an orderly evacuation.  So with the certainty of climate change now upon us and little time left for action, is there anything we can do to mitigate the effects this will have on the lives of our low income families?  The answer is, of course, yes; there are many things we can still do.  By way of illustration, here a few things I did when building our new but smallish house on the farm seven years ago that made a big difference on how we fared during this extreme winter.  First, given that we had access to forest land and hence, firewood, we put in non-electric wood stoves as our primary heat source with the option to cook with wood as well.  No matter what happens to the cost or availability of heating fuel, we will be able to cook and keep warm at very little cost.  Second, in anticipation of deep price swings and possible supply disruptions, and though we only use it for hot water and a small gas range, we installed a 1000 gallon propane tank when a 200 gallon one was recommended as sufficient for our needs.  Because of that, we have been able to fill up at no more than $1.44/gal. when prices have risen as high as $8.00.  And we have about an eight year supply on hand in case we have an even worse propane crises in the years ahead, which I believe will likely be the case.  Finally, I had the plumber put in our underground water and septic system two feet lower than code requirements in anticipation of the greater weather extremes predicted by climate science, extremes like we encountered this winter.  The plumber thought I was nuts and tried to talk me out of it, but I wrote the check, so he did it.  By coincidence, I ran into him this winter when he was desperately trying to unfreeze the municipal sewer system in front of our office.  I asked him if he still thought I was crazy.  He said; "No," and noted that a lot of water systems built to code in my neighborhood were freezing up this year.  To be very clear:  The point is not that I am particularly smart or lucky, or that these ideas would work for everyone.  I'm not and they wouldn't.  The point is that preparation can make a huge difference in our experience of the New Reality as it begins to bite, but we have to do it now while we have the time and resources are still available. A second point is that all the measures cited above cost little more than their conventional alternatives, and all have paid for that difference several times over already.  In reality, we can't afford not to invest in the real future; a future of scarcity and scary weather and a contracting economy.  But our time to act in preparation for that future is running out.

Digging Deeper 

I'm probably in deep enough.  Let's call it good for this bi-week.

The New Reality Quiz 

First, last bi-week's quiz question:  OK, if you made it all the way down to the bottom of this post, you need a softball.  Here 'tis.  The title of this post is a pun.  On what? Answer: The Lion in Winter, a 1966 play by James Goldman, depicting the personal and political conflicts of Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, their children and their guests during Christmas, 1183.  In 1968, the play was made into a film starring Peter O'Toole as Henry II and Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor.  In this writer's humble opinion, one of the best films ever.

This bi-week's Quiz Question: 

In 2013, the big five oil companies combined, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Shell, earned $177,000 dollars in profits every  A) day,  B) hour,  C) minute, or D) second?

Off travelling on state business next week, then on to the National Community Action Foundation Legislative Conference in DC the following, so this post will re-appear on April 4th, on the 46th Anniversary of the day I bought my first motorcycle.  Don't care?  Well, it was a big deal to me at the time!















The Lyin' in Winter - Part 1: Denial | February 27, 2014

lalalalaThe last New Realty Check closed with a brief description of winter 2013 - 14 as we are experiencing it in west central Wisconsin.  Well, two weeks on and the plot thickens; as does the snow, the damaging ice dams on poorly and even on reasonably well insulated rooftops, the depth of the frost line now freezing municipal water and sewer systems across the region, and the pile of emergency fuel assistance applications on our intake worker's desk.  And the forecast is for nighttime lows of -11F to -18F  for several days ahead. This is real temperature, not wind chill.  Wind chill tonight is -36F.  Even for winter-hearty Wisconsinites, this weird winter has been hard.

It is not surprising, then, to hear the smug voices of climate change deniers ridiculing global warming once again because they happen to be cold at the moment.  Sigh.  And, since environmental degradation, especially climate change, is one of the three mega-trends (along with resource depletion and economic turmoil) that are driving the New Reality, this post takes a look at the question: Is weird winter weather related to climate change?  To answer this question, we turn first to an article published a couple of days ago on the British web site, Yale Environmental 360.  The article is entitled: "Is Weird Winter Weather Related to Climate Change?"  and seems like a pretty good place to start.  Here are a couple of relevant excerpts, the first making the important point that the impact of climate change on weather is a global phenomena, though we experience the effects locally:

  • This year, the jet [stream] has been unusually far north in the Pacific, bringing balmy weather to Alaska. But across the Atlantic it has been unusually far south, unusually persistent, and 30 percent faster than normal. It has sent more than 30 storms, many of them much larger and more intense than normal, crashing into the shores of Britain in the past three months. With the storms have come high winds and heavy rains almost every day, delivering amounts of precipitation unseen in records going back more than a century — and probably exceeding anything else in the last 250 years, according to the Met Office [the British Government Meteorological Office] report. 

  • At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago this month, climatologist Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University linked "this bizarre winter" to climate change, and in particular to changes in the jet stream caused by a warming Arctic. "Weather patterns are changing," she said. "We can expect more of the same."  (This final sentence should be of some concern to those who find this winter's California drought, Alaskan avalanches, Wisconsin heating fuel crisis, Atlanta ice storms or Pennsylvania power outages to be serious issues. - phk)

And while the article properly notes that it is very difficult to prove that climate change actually has caused these specific perturbations of the jet stream, it does make this rather more important point:

Data from weather stations around the world reveal more extreme precipitation events — and more droughts, too. This is firmly in line with the predictions of climate models and is "what is expected from fundamental physics," says the Met Office. A warmer atmosphere will contain more energy, and more moisture from evaporation, says Woollings. It already does. And, in general, more energy and moisture will mean wetter storms in many places.

This is a very interesting and informative article.  Here is the link:

From my perspective, however, even this does not quite get it right.  The point is not whether climate change has caused this or that flood, drought, tornado, hurricane or temperature extreme.  The New Reality is that the planet has warmed up by 1.8 degrees F and that all the weather we now experience, even the "normal" stuff, is causally related to that change.  So if we want to know what impact climate change has had on weather, then, like the no-see otter above, we just have to open our eyes, ears, and minds, and look around. We're in it. We cannot escape it.

Another baffling aspect of this weird winter is the extent to which the mainstream media still generally covers all these weather disaster stories as if these weather extremes are unexpected, unique, surprising events.  So we move on to the next question; Should this come as a surprise?  To answer that, we turn to climate advocate, environmental author and founder, Bill McKibben's recent Democracy Now interview entitled: "This Should Not Come as a Surprise."  He is talking about, amongst other things, this weird Winter.  An excerpt:

  • None of this should come as a surprise if people have been paying attention. It’s exactly what climate scientists and climate campaigners have been saying now for the better part of two decades. I mean, I wrote the first book about this for a general audience literally 25 years ago. And these are exactly the sort of things scientists said would happen. They’re happening somewhat more quickly and on a somewhat larger scale, mostly because scientists are, by their nature, conservative and underpredict. But the fear of scientists is palpable. That’s why so many of them are out there getting arrested to stop things like the Keystone pipeline, speaking out in all the ways that they can think of.

This text/audio/or video interview also leads into next bi-week's post: The Lyin' in Winter - Part 2: Environmental Justice.  The link:

The Connection 
The connections between weather extremes and the work of Community Action are everywhere, and have been much discussed in these New Reality Check posts in connection with food prices, disaster relief and such.  This harsh winter in particular, has increased the cost and hardship of being poor as both heating fuel prices and the amount of fuel needed to heat a home have risen dramatically.  Cars get poorer mileage in the extreme cold, and the older, more worn out cars low income families often have to rely on are more prone to failure and repair as starting systems and other components are stressed.  The list goes on.

As program operators, the effects of weird weather can be very immediate.  Our agency, to pick one example, has developed several tax-credit affordable housing projects.  In addition to higher energy costs, snow removal costs at one of our 24-unit projects that were $1802 for all of 2011, were $7565 for 2013.  In January 2014 alone, snow removal cost $2,345 for a project that struggles to break even with $10,750 per month in total rent revenues.  February will likely be worse.  As we dip into dwindling reserves to pay these bills, this kind of persistent weather could put this much needed affordable housing at risk of insolvency.  The list goes on.

Beyond that, Community Action is largely a creature of government; or more precisely, of an electorate whose will is manifest through representative government's policies, laws and programs.  Our fate is subject then, to the resources and effective capacity of government to function, so we need to pay attention to the impact on local and state governments when a severe winter breaks budgets as well as pipes.  An excellent New York Times article last week shows how this is unfolding over large areas of America in a piece titled: (you guessed it) "A Severe Winter Breaks Budgets as Well as Pipes:" 

  • SYRACUSE — Century-old water mains here have ruptured behind City Hall, popped in residential areas and split under the city’s bar and restaurant district. The mayor says she has personally reported three breaks, while exhausted crews work 18-hour shifts in subfreezing temperatures to repair the damage.

    In Detroit, a break in a 30-inch main flooded a southwest neighborhood on Tuesday, turning streets into streams and stalling cars in water above their hubcaps. As city workers pumped away the water, and police officers and firefighters rescued stranded motorists, icebergs formed above the blacktop, locking some vehicles into place until the next thaw.

    The exceptionally cold and stormy winter battering the Midwest, South and Northeast has forced cities and states to put road crews on double shifts and step up purchases of asphalt, trying to keep up with an epidemic of potholes. They have also bought and spread so much salt that there is a shortage in the Mid-Atlantic States, with more storms expected.

    With revenues and staffing still below pre-recession levels, many local and state governments face a new financial strain from storm-related increases in spending on overtime pay, contractors and supplies. On Saturday, another snowfall covered the Northeast, a reminder that winter is far from finished.

    Cities still do not have a lot of cash available, so this particular storm season is having a really severe impact on their budgets... Whoever is paying, the repair work will be extensive and expensive....In Baltimore, 353 water mains ruptured in January, about one-third as many as in all of 2013. South Carolina officials estimated that a single weather system last month drained $2 million from the state’s budget....In addition to the direct costs to governments, harsh weather can also mean lower tax revenue by slowing economic activity. A downtown Syracuse water main break on — no kidding — Water Street left a deep crater in front of the Miss Syracuse diner....

And so it goes.  With climate related costs rising and tax revenues shrinking, what are the prospects for increased government funding for the alleviation of poverty?  Well, on that front there might actually, possibly, be a little good news, but it contains two big "ifs."  We take this up in Part 2, two weeks down the road.

Digging Deeper 
As a person who has spent many hours standing in front of video projections of graphs and facts and figures, trying to explain the New Reality to yet another mostly perplexed audience, (‘Facts’, Conrad wrote, in Lord Jim, ‘as if facts could prove anything.’) I am very sensitive to the need to be able to communicate this stuff both more effectively and to a wider range of listeners.  Fortunately, another group of British folks; environmentally oriented writers, poets and artists for the most part, have chosen to put their talents in service to the same end through an initiative called the Dark Mountain Project.  The piece I have selected for this week's "Digging Deeper" section is a recent Dark Mountain post by Paul Kingsnorth, raised in the south of England, about the recent severe flooding noted above in England's version of this weird winter.  It is titled: "The Rising of the Waters."  A sample:

For the last few weeks, the south of England has been flooded, to a degree that hasn’t been seen for years – even though ‘the floods’ have become, quietly unacknowledged, an annual event now. Gradually, quietly but entirely inexorably, everything I knew is sinking.

The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is at record levels, and we are continuing to pump the stuff up there at an accelerating pace. From here on in, it is all change; to what degree and at what speed, we have no idea.

  • We are not in control, and we don’t like it.

    What is interesting to me personally is to see this hitting the south of England so hard. For a long time, environmentalists have been telling us that it is the poor who will be hit hardest by climate change. Of course, they are right in many ways. The flooding of Bangladesh is going to be much worse for its people than the flooding of England. Nevertheless, what we can see here is people in one of the richest countries in the world taking the full force of the climate shift that is now beginning.  It has been happening elsewhere for a long time; it will keep happening, everywhere. This is just my small, local perspective on a shift that is taking place across the planet. The reality of that shift – of its scale, likely depth and inevitability – is only just beginning to seep into the public consciousness. But like the flood waters, it can’t be held back. In the end, it will cover everything.

    It is easy to imagine that what we currently call progress will continue in the same direction, until everyone in the world is a car-driving consumer with a flight to the moon booked for their holiday. It is equally easy, and strangely comforting, to imagine everything falling apart in rapid period of time; a total and immediate collapse, from which there will be no recovery.

    What is much harder – what seems almost impossible sometimes – is to imagine a gradual grinding down of our civilization. What is harder it is to imagine another century of floods, with the waters rising higher every year. No apocalypse and no bases on Mars. No industrial collapse followed by a return to hunter gathering, and no Singularity either. Just a gradual, messy, winding-down of everything we once believed we were entitled to.

A climb up Dark Mountain, like a climb up the tallest tree in last month's post, is not for everyone; not for the weak and not for the fearful.  But like backpacking in the Tetons, if you are experienced and well conditioned enough to make the trek, the landscape is wild and beautiful and well worth the effort. Even hopeful in its own way.  Here is the link:

The New Reality Quiz 
First, last bi-week's quiz question: Noted climate scientist, James Hanson, has calculated that the heat gain trapped on planet Earth as a direct result of  the man-made pollution already dumped in the atmosphere, is the energy equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bomb explosions every:  A) year,  B) month,  C) week, or D) day? Answer:  D) 400,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bomb explosions every 24 hours.  I have a post queued up on Big Numbers.  Could be helpful as we try to really understand this stuff.

This week's New Reality Quiz Question:
OK, if you made it all the way down to the bottom of this post, you need a softball.  Here 'tis.  The title of this post is a pun.  On what?

Love Letters | February 14, 2014 

romansThis St. Valentine's Day New Reality Check is based on a letter exchange - or rather our more common 21st century equivalent; an email exchange - between two folks whose love is not merely sentimental or romantic or limited to one another.  It is an email exchange between two men who have demonstrated their love for their fellow humans and our shared planet through countless volunteer hours of research, deep thought, and skillful writing, intended to help all of us understand and prepare for a very challenging time; the present and the near future.  Both of these guys have spent a lot of time in the tallest tree noted in the last post, and both see the same view when they look out in the direction in which we are all headed:  They see the collapse of industrial civilization.  What they are dealing with in this exchange specifically is: When is this collapse likely to come, and what metrics will help us figure that out?

Now in most of the circles in which most of us mingle, this would be written off as crazy talk.  We simply cannot imagine the reality of our techno-advanced, strong and multi-splendored civilization ever actually, really, somehow collapsing; but I would advise against taking too much comfort in that failure of imagination.  With the notable exceptions of some very dramatic events - like having an atomic bomb dropped on one of your peaceful cites, or watching volcanic eruptions or tidal waves obliterate your civilization before your eyes - the historical record shows that most folks in the middle of the collapse of their powerful, multi-splendored civilizations have not seen nor understood what was going on around them even as it was happening.  A good case in point is probably the most studied collapse in human history, the fall of Rome.  It turns out that Rome had been consuming itself for many decades in order to keep the shell of its empire intact (a process John Michael Greer terms "catabolic collapse") by 410 CE when the Visigoth army was at its undefended gates.  By this time, Rome had consumed the resources necessary in order to effectively project its interests all over its dwindling empire by militarily superiority alone.  So of necessity, they had developed some expertise in co-opting their enemies through diplomacy and assimilating them; essentially turning them into Romans (Which is of course what any and everyone would want to be, right?) and making them part of Eternal Rome, the 1100 hundred year old empire that would last forever.  So they sent their diplomatic "A" Team out to negotiate such a deal with the Visigoth King, Alaric.  The negotiations went something like this:

TEAM ROME:  OK, it looks like you are pretty well poised to raze the city, so what do you want?

ALARIC:  All of your property, the total surrender of your armies, and to have all your women and children become our slaves.

TEAM ROME (somewhat taken aback):  Yea Gods!  Why, whatever will you give us in return?

ALARIC (somewhat bemused):  Your lives.


As Thomas Cahill wrote in his fascinating history: How the Irish Saved Civilization:  "That Rome should ever fall was unthinkable to Romans: its foundations were unassailable, sturdily sunk in a storied past and steadily built on for eleven centuries and more..... Eternal Rome..hardly foresaw its doom."  And yet collapse it did, and most decidedly so.  And so it has happened many times to many civilizations before and since.  If fact, you really don't have to go back any farther than the global credit crisis of 2008 for clear evidence that our current industrial global civilization could indeed collapse; a reality even recognized by a President not especially known for either his keen intellect or eloquence, but who pretty much nailed it with his famous observation: "This sucker could go down!"

The point of all this is simply that some form of collapse is really not out of the question just because it is not a topic of accepted conversation in the popular discourse.  At the very least, given the enormity of what is at stake, the case for collapse is worthy of the most careful study.  So, on to our "love letters:"  the featured content for this New Reality Check post.

The exchange is between two men who have both appeared in earlier New Reality Checks; Dmitry Orlav and Ugo Bardi.  As you may recall, Dmitry was a participant in the 2010 Facing the New Reality retreat and an author featured in the subsequent "Facing the New Reality" report, and a "mini general session" presenter at our 2010 Annual Conference in Boston.  Dmitry Blogs at "ClubOrlov."  Ugo Bardi is a professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy.  (Not too far from Rome, actually.)  Ugo blogs at "Cassandra's Legacy."  Two sites I visit with some regularity.

This exchange was posted on "ClubOrlov" last Tuesday.  Here are a couple of excerpts:

  • DMITRY:  Over the past half a decade I've made a number of detailed predictions about collapse: how it is likely to unfold, what its various manifestations are likely to be, and how it will affect various groups and categories of people. But I have remained purposefully vague about the timing of collapse and its various stages, being careful to always append “give or take half a decade” to my dire prognostications. I wasn't withholding information or being coy; I really had no way of calculating when collapse will happen—until five days ago, when, out of the blue, I received the following email from Ugo Bardi:

    UGO:  I'm trying to draw a parallel between the collapse of the Soviet Union [in 1991] and the impending collapse of Italy. There are, as always, similarities and differences. In particular, the Soviet Union collapsed almost immediately after that oil production flattened out and started declining. On the contrary, the Italian government survives despite a loss of 36% in oil consumption.....[T]he Italian system is based largely on income tax and property tax. The government is losing revenues on commodity taxes (e.g. on gasoline) but it can compensate with property taxes. Italians, on the average, are “rich,” in the sense that they have savings in banks and most of them own their homes. So, the government can tax their properties and their savings. As long as Italians still have something taxable, then the government will survive. It will disappear only when it has managed to strip citizens completely of everything they have.

    DMITRY:  Very interesting article. Yes, the entire southern tier of the EU is in some early stage of collapse, but so far it hadn't occurred to me to draw parallels between it and USSR. Now that you mention it, the parallel is obvious: it is financial collapse triggered by something having to do with oil, but with polarities reversed, and delayed by a period of wealth destruction.... Now, I can see parallels to this in what is happening now in the US and in the EU, but with all the polarities reversed: here [in America] oil flows in and money flows out, and the coup de grace [will be] high oil prices ..[the purchase of which] has to be fueled by credit....where a unit of new debt now produces much less than a unit of economic growth. Financial collapse always comes first: all sorts of financial arrangements unravel as the center becomes unable to float the periphery, and in response the periphery starts to withhold economic cooperation. [This also played a big part of Rome's collapse. - phk] The result is a breakdown in supply chains, shutdown of production, and, shortly thereafter, shutdown of commerce.... This, then, is the key distinction: the USSR collapsed promptly because it was already skin and bones, whereas the US and the EU still have plenty of subcutaneous fat to burn through. But they are, in fact, burning through it. And so, the conclusion is, collapse will come, but here it will take a little longer.

    And so here is the outline of the method for calculating the timing of collapses: 

    1. Find out when the collapse clock starts running by looking for a significant drop in energy consumption

    2. Calculate how long the clock is going to run by dividing the total wealth of the citizenry by the economic shortfall of the shrinking economy

The full discussion is much richer and more nuanced than just these excerpts,  and well worth the read, which can be found here:

Some may view this piece as anti-government, but I don't think that's necessarily the case.  These guys just read history, where we find it pretty clear that governments in general will do pretty much anything they believe they have to do in order to stay in power.  This is neither all bad nor all good, but it is the reality.

Finally, the barbarians likely to appear at our undefended gates - especially if business as usual remains our only plan - will be much less compassionate than even the hard-nosed Alaric.  In fact, they are incapable of compassion because they are neither human nor animal.  These Visigoths are the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, geology and mathematics; and they don't care about us humans at all.

The Connection 
Once again, the main Community Action connection to this piece is the fact that any manifestation of economic or political collapse will surely hit the poor first and hardest, as it always does and always will.  Beyond that, of course, is the imperative to build local economies and food systems to reduce dependency on the larger systems that are more prone to the kinds of systemic failure discussed in this piece.

Digging Deeper 
Both of these serious intellectuals have much to offer as we move further into the New Reality.  Ugo Bardi's "Cassandra's Legacy" site is great for several reasons, including the international  perspective also found on Dmitry's "ClubOrlov" and the "FEASTA" site featured in the last post.  You could  spend weeks on these three sites without wasting any of your time.  Dmitry's books, Reinventing Collapse and The Five Stages of Collapse are also, as you might expect, excellent, witty, and right on point for this topic.

The New Reality Quiz 
First, last bi-week's quiz question:  One huge dimension of the New Reality that we have not addressed in any great length is the world's increasing population. This is extremely important because all of the resource and environmental problems featured in the New Reality Initiative can be correctly viewed as problems of human over-consumption; a combination of both how much resource individual consumers consume, and how many consumers are consuming it.  So, planet Earth is currently adding 1 million new human consumers (births minus deaths) every  A) month,  B) week,  C) four and a half days,  D) day and a half?  Answer: C)  every four and a half days.  Something is going to break, if it hasn't already.

This bi-week's quiz question: 
Speaking of dropping atomic bombs on peaceful cities (Note: This could be a candidate for Worst Segue Ever), noted climate scientist, James Hanson, has calculated that the heat gain trapped on planet Earth as a direct result of  the man-made pollution already dumped in the atmosphere, is the energy equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bomb explosions every:  A) year,  B) month,  C) week, or D) day?


From the Tallest Tree | January 31, 2014  

talltreeOn a cold morning after the President's State of the Union address, we try in this post to get our heads above the dense surrounding forest in order to assess the State of the New Reality heading into 2014.  The tall tree we are climbing to get this view is a paper by John Sharry of the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainably (Feasta) in Ireland.  The paper is entitled: "Hope in the Face of Disaster - Creating a sustainable, viable, future path for civilization."

A couple of thoughts before we begin the climb:  First, I have been following Feasta for a number of years and have been consistently impressed by the quality, sophistication and depth of their work.  In their words: "Feasta was launched in Dublin in October 1998 to explore the economic, cultural and environmental characteristics of a truly sustainable society, and to disseminate the results of this exploration to the widest relevant audience."  I am pretty sure we will hear from these folks again, so we can add Feasta to the choir of helpful voices that the New Reality Check has  assembled to help guide us through the tangled and dangerous forest ahead.

Second, the author of this particular piece is a practicing clinical psychologist.  His insight into why it is that we as a society have - so far - so utterly failed to address the compelling demands and solid evidence supporting New Reality issues, is probably the most useful contribution of this post.

Here is how the author summarizes the paper:

  • Taking a long term view, this paper explores the many crises that civilization and humanity will face over the coming decades some of which are already starting to have an impact. The paper proposes a central cause to these crises and particularly explores the widespread psychological inertia in the face of these vast problems. Some potential constructive choices that individuals, communities and nations could yet make are outlined.

This is kind of a tough climb, so strap on your safety gear and let's get started; pulling ourselves up by the topic headings of the paper.  Each heading will be followed by a brief quote from that section of the paper; an executive summary of sorts.  Once we have taken in the whole view, John Sharry will share his compelling analysis of why we have failed to respond effectively to these challenges, and offer some realistic hope for moving forward.

The View

The Illusion of Progress:
(from the introductory parable)
‘We are heading the wrong way, we are headed towards disaster’ [the philosopher] shouted.

‘Shut up’ the engineer and scientist replied in unison ‘we are making great progress’.

Economic instability/Financial System Weakness:
  Many countries have completely unsustainable levels of debt that simply cannot be paid back and when a future crisis happens central banks and nation states will have less capacity to intervene (having spent most of their reserves to stabilize the system since 2008). Despite these problems there is widespread denial about the scale of the financial problems we face. As the economist and founder of Feasta, Richard Douthwaite notes:

Few of us think that anything radical has to be done. We assure each other that minor tinkering, like holding an inquiry, beefing up the regulatory system and limiting bankers’ bonuses, will be enough to allow us to carry on living pretty much as we do now for the foreseeable future.

Resource Shortage:  Our world economy is so dependent on the cheap availability of oil, that even a small restriction in supply has the potential to collapse the entire system or plunge the world economy into depression....Current and future resource constraints are not just limited to oil and indeed almost all the vital resources on which we depend are being depleted at exponential rates.

Ecological Destruction:  The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated....People are just not aware of the massive roles that the oceans play in the Earth’s systems. Phytoplankton produce 40 per cent of the oxygen in the atmosphere, for example, and 90 per cent of all life is in the oceans… The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.

Climate Change:  As if the problems above weren’t bad enough, by far the most serious issue to come is global warming caused by human CO2 emissions leading to catastrophic climate change – this is biggest elephant in the room....Already, we are beginning to see the early stages of this in increased rates of flooding, severe heat waves and sea level rises but worse is to come. For many years, 2 degrees was proposed as the safe limit that civilization could tolerate but this looks likely to be breached on our current economic trajectory. As Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndal Centre notes

There is now little to no chance of maintaining the rise in global mean surface temperature at below 2 ̊C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary.  The thing is, if 2 degrees C is extremely dangerous, 4 degrees C is absolutely catastrophic. In fact, according to the latest science, says Anderson, “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable”.

The Analysis

What is the Basic Problem?  ..[M]odern civilization is collectively caught in the following terrible bind: In order to avoid collapse the modern economy requires continual growth and thus the increased exploitation of natural resources; however, economic growth depletes the earth’s resource base on which the economy depends and so will eventually collapse....This means that whatever choice we make we are facing into some form of decline and collapse. However, the earlier we choose ecologically sensitive alternatives to our current economic growth model, the more manageable such collapse and decline might be....In simple terms we are reaching the limits of the natural world and things will not be the same in the future. Already, we are feeling the tremors of the future shocks to come. World agricultural output is declining, the availability of crucial natural resources such as fresh water, fish stocks, arable land are all declining. Fossil fuels are increasingly harder to access or cause increasing environmental damage as they are exploited. The mining of tars sands and the boom in worldwide fracking are examples of this, both of which are barely economically viable.

Why is No One Listening?
  Despite increasing and overwhelming scientific certainty about climate change, there is a parallel increase in denial of the facts by the public. ...So why would this be? Why would people choose to deny the serious problems of the future posed by not just by climate change, but also by resource depletion, and environmental destruction? Why would people deny such serious problems when they are becoming most apparent? Why would we turn away from corrective action at the hour of our direst need? While people have suggested the answer to this lies in the existence of well organized vested interests in the energy and fossil fuels industries and this is indeed true, I think there is also a collective failing in our human psychology that explains this rampant denial.

Denial, Fear and Loss:  The only pain that we can avoid in life is the pain caused by trying to avoid pain. - RD Laing

In many ways our collective behavior in response to the prospect of climate change and environmental destruction is similar to the behavior of a seriously addicted person. We in the West are addicted to availability of cheap oil and the consumerist economy that it provides us. ...Picking perceived ‘holes’ in the evidence about climate, however tenuous, or clinging to ‘vague solutions’, however unrealistic are all powered by denial. ...The recent growth of the number of ‘climate deniers’ and ‘climate ignorers’ can be explained by an increased awareness (on one level) of the problems and a resultant desperation to deny the facts and put them out of collective awareness.

Over Optimism and Collective Denial: 
One of the most striking things about the response to the current predicament is the lack of leadership and/ or collective denial that is endemic across our mainstream institutions. Our political masters, the mainstream media and most of our economists all agree that we must continue the economic growth or our ‘business as usual’ model, despite the patent unsustainability of this pathway and the harm it causes.


When Denial is Punctured: Crisis can be a time of opportunity and change, as well as trauma, and fracture.

...[O]ur collective denial [will] be punctured. Once this happens this will of course be a very perilous time. People, who have been hitherto in comfortable denial, will become fearful and desperate and may embark on desperate actions leading to social unrest, war and society breakdown. We need to be prepared to manage these social difficulties in the future which is likely to be as significant as managing the economy.

The famous psychologist Kubler Ross proposed a model of the individual’s response to bereavement or pending loss as going through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. ..Interestingly, many writers in the environmental field describe their own personal journey of awareness in similar terms. They describe a period of denial, before having a ‘climate change moment’ when they realize that the world on which they depend is unsustainable. This if often followed by a period of despair and finally by some acceptance and a commitment to constructive action.

Responding Constructively:  I find it useful to conceptualize four stages to help individuals change which may provide a helpful framework in considering how we might collectively face the serious problems of resource depletion, climate change and economic collapse that are ahead of us. These four stages are

1)  Honestly accepting the reality in which we find ourselves
2)  Creating a meaningful vision/purposeful goal of how to live in the face of such reality
3)  Focusing on constructive action
4)  Building a community of support

Honestly Accepting Reality:  We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.  - Joseph Campbell

For us to wake up to the sheer scale of the problems we face will indeed require great honesty and bravery. It will be particularly hard for us to accept our responsibility – that is it was our actions which caused all these problems in the first place through our refusal to abandon a harmful economic model. Hardest of all will be to accept that the problem is not fixable, that much of what we have done is irreversible.

Creating a Positive Vision:  Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.  - Vaclav Havel

Once a realistic and grounded appreciation of reality is achieved the next step is to create a vision for living in the face of this reality.... For example, setting goals for more community oriented sustainable living, where people rely on their own resources to live, can be a more healthy and happy choice than the choice to live in our isolated, individual consumer societies.

Taking Constructive Action: 
Facing the current economic and environmental crises, there never has been such an urgent need for constructive action. Such action is both about arresting our business as usual path to destruction and finding alternative pathways as well as trying to adapt and build resilience in the face coming crises. ..if we wait until major crises hit and our economies are shattered then not only will our action be too late, it will also be impossible as we will have little economic infrastructure to put plans into action. You won’t be able to build flood walls or alternative energy sources if your economy is in chaos. Early preventative action, to build resilience or to reduce future problems, is always preferable and the sooner we act the better.

Personal Resilience and Preparedness:
  Simple things like prioritizing one’s health, getting fit, learning useful skills and accumulating resources that will be of enduring value in challenging times all create personal resilience....Building personal resilience is not just about building capacity to deal with future crises, the benefits also extend to how you live your life now. ...One of the most important benefits of a personal acceptance of the more challenging future we face is how it can alter a person’s appreciation of their current life. Realizing the potential losses in the future, many people choose to live more deliberately and with great appreciation of what they have as they sense none of this may be available in the future.

Community Resilience:
Whereas in the past villages and towns depended more on locally produced food and energy, currently now locally grown food makes up less than 2% of produce and local energy production amounts to even less. This means that towns are extremely vulnerable to any global disruption to energy or food supply.  [So] grassroots movements such as Transition towns are about galvanizing local people and communities into positive constructive action. Rather than sitting back, complaining about what is wrong or being fearful about the future, the Transition movement puts people in touch with like-minded people who can act together to make a difference. These projects connect people with their neighbors, provide meaningful community work and build social capital within communities. The personal psychological benefits of such constructive community action [emphasis mine - phk] are enormous.

National Resilience:  With the common enemy of the Nazis, political leadership was strong and communities were galvanized into action. The ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign to encourage locally produced food was extremely successful....In the face of crisis, it is possible to conceive that current national politics could be transformed and reoriented in a similar way. Climate change and carbon emissions could become common enemies and national goals could be set for energy and food independence.

International Cooperation and Resilience: As a result the problems associated with unsustainable growth such as climate change, environmental damage and resource destruction are all truly global problems... While is possible that the stress of reduced resources and climate chaos could lead to fracture and conflict between nations, there is also the possibility that this could lead to more global awareness and force agreed global solutions as people work harder together to survive.

Building a Community of Support:
While there is a myriad of future challenges facing humanity that are already beginning to impact, the future still is unpredictable and open to choice. ..If we strive now to honestly face the reality of our predicament, set meaningful goals that bind us together and take constructive action, then we can build a future worth living for.

- end -

It should be clear by now that if this is the executive summary, the full paper must have some heft.  It does, a full 15 pages worth.  But it is very good, and well worth the time.  Here is the link:

The Connection 
Actually, it is difficult to find parts of this paper that are not relevant to Community Action now and in the years ahead.  Like the rest of America, most of us are in denial, not only for the reasons noted by John Sharry, but also due to the sense of being overwhelmed by the day to day crises faced by our low income families and by our own agencies' struggles to meet rising needs with shrinking resources.  Still, this does not alter the realities summarized in this piece, and we need to find the courage and resources to come up with a hopeful but realistic vision and action plan of our own.

Digging Deeper 
My introduction to Feasta was their 2010 Book: Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the Risks of Economic and Environmental Collapse.  I was drawn to the book in part because it included a chapter by New Reality author and friend, Nate Hagens, but soon realized that all these Feasta folks operate on a very high conceptual and intellectual level.  A great place to go for a deeper dig.

The New Reality Quiz
First, last bi-week's quiz question: One of the essential resources that is becoming increasingly scarce these days is fresh water; much of which is used in the US to grow fruits and vegetables in California.  So, how many gallons of water does it take to grow a single peach in Kern County, California?  A) 2 gallons,  B) 5 gallons,  C)  63 gallons, or D) 142 gallons?  Answer: D) an amazing 142 gallons per peach!  For most of us 99%ers, it has been our usual practice to make some of our food buying choices, like whether or not to buy a peach, based on; "How much does it cost?"  It may be prudent to start asking ourselves, "How much did this peach cost the planet?"  (Note before the California Peach Growers Association comes after me: this point applies equally to all other food purchase choices.)

This Bi-week's New Reality Quiz Question
One huge dimension of the New Reality that we have not addressed in any great length is the world's increasing population. This is extremely important because all of the resource and environmental problems featured in the New Reality Initiative can be correctly viewed as problems of human over-consumption; a combination of both how much resource individual consumers consume, and how many consumers are consuming it.  So, planet Earth is currently adding 1 million new human consumers (births minus deaths) every  A) month,  B) week,  C) four and a half days,  D) day and a half? 

Toward Managing Scarcity
| January 17 2014

trickle-downThe New Reality Check concluded its discussion of limits last bi-week with this John Michael Greer quote from his "Overview" piece in the "Facing the New Reality" report: "The work of social service agencies in the years ahead thus will have to shift from seeking a fairer distribution of abundance to the much harder task of managing scarcity."  In this post, we begin to explore how it is that we might go about doing just that. 

A good place to start, it seems to me, would be to look at how we apportion out what resources, or wealth, we have right now.  This week's featured article by former US Labor Secretary, Robert Reich: "The Year of the Great Re-distribution," makes the unequivocal case that we have a very long way to go in the "fairer distribution of abundance" department before we even get to the much trickier "managing scarcity" bit.  It's a short but powerful piece and well worth the read, but for the busy New Reality executive on the go, a couple of summarizing quotes: 

  • 2013 was a banner year for profits. Where did those profits come from? Here’s where redistribution comes in. American corporations didn’t make most of their money from increased sales (although their foreign sales did increase). They made their big bucks mostly by reducing their costs — especially their biggest single cost: wages.

    ...[C]orporate profits have been increasing throughout this recovery (they grew over 18 percent in 2013 alone) while wages have been dropping. Corporate earnings now represent the largest share of the gross domestic product — and wages the smallest share of GDP — than at any time since records have been kept. Hence, the Great Redistribution.

    ...America has been redistributing upward for some time – after all, “trickle-down” economics turned out to be trickle up — but we outdid ourselves in 2013. At a time of record inequality and decreasing mobility, America conducted a Great Redistribution upward.

Here is the link:

In Osawatomie, Kansas on December 6th, President Obama gave a stirring speech on the American economy.  In it, he called our growing income inequality "the defining issue of our time," further noting: "..."for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments -- wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren't -- and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up."  With this speech, the President also placed income inequality high on the issue agenda for the 2014 mid-term election.  This is a very positive development which may give us a small platform from which to do a little education of our own on the even greater income challenges American families will face as resource depletion, environmental degradation, and soaring debt, conspire to move our society away from the Age of Abundance and deeper into the Age of Scarcity.

The Connection
This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's launch of the War on Poverty.  As both Robert Reich and President Obama make clear, the great cause of economic justice in America is now losing ground to an economic and tax structure that increasingly increases (yup, that's what it does) injustice and inequality.   If we hope to have any success in the next 50 years, we have to change the way the game is played.  Support for any policies that effectively reduce America's growing income and wealth inequity would be a great place to start.

Digging Deeper 

While Reich's piece makes a tight, compelling case for this increasing inequity, David Simon, creator of the critically acclaimed TV program The Wire, took this whole reality to a deeper level of understanding in a speech he gave recently in Sydney, Australia.  Entitled "There are Now Two Americas.  My Country is a Horror Show:" this speech does two things very well.  It conveys what "income inequality" really means in America these days, and it begins to seriously take up the question of what kind of economic system is needed if we are going to turn this ship around.  A couple of excerpts:

  • There's no barbed wire around West Baltimore or around East Baltimore, around Pimlico, the areas in my city that have been utterly divorced from the American experience that I know. But there might as well be.

    ...And so in my country you're seeing a horror show. You're seeing a retrenchment in terms of family income, you're seeing the abandonment of basic services, such as public education, functional public education. You're seeing the underclass hunted through an alleged war on dangerous drugs that is in fact merely a war on the poor and has turned us into the most incarcerative state in the history of mankind, in terms of the sheer numbers of people we've put in American prisons and the percentage of Americans we put into prisons. No other country on the face of the Earth jails people at the number and rate that we are.

    ... Mistaking capitalism for a blueprint as to how to build a society strikes me as a really dangerous idea in a bad way. Capitalism is a remarkable engine again for producing wealth. It's a great tool to have in your toolbox if you're trying to build a society and have that society advance. You wouldn't want to go forward at this point without it. But it's not a blueprint for how to build the just society. There are other metrics besides that quarterly profit report.

    ... And one of the things that capital would want unequivocally and for certain is the diminishment of labor. They would want labor to be diminished because labor's a cost. And if labor is diminished, let's translate that: in human terms, it means human beings are worth less.

    ... The idea that the market will solve such things as environmental concerns, as our racial divides, as our class distinctions, our problems with educating and incorporating one generation of workers into the economy after the other when that economy is changing; the idea that the market is going to heed all of the human concerns and still maximize profit is juvenile. It's a juvenile notion and it's still being argued in my country passionately and we're going down the tubes. And it terrifies me because I'm astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice. Are we all in this together or are we all not?

This is a very compelling and helpful piece.  Warning!  This piece contains, er, colorful language and (gasp!) references to Karl Marx.  The link:

The New Reality Check Quiz 
First, last bi-week's quiz question: The following text is excerpted from an advertisement for photovoltaic solar electric panels that appeared in a popular national magazine.  The question will be to figure out when it appeared

  • Ever since Archimedes, men have been searching for the secret of the sun.

    For it is know that the same kindly rays that help the flowers and the grains and the fruits to grow also send us almost limitless power.  It is nearly as much every three days as in all known reserves of coal, oil and uranium.

    If this energy could be put to use - there would be enough to turn every wheel and light every lamp that mankind would ever need.

Wow!  So this lovely prose and extremely positive view of our energy future appeared in:  A)1938,  B)1956),  C)1968, or D)1976?

Answer?  B)1956, of course.  The ad was in National Geographic; placed there by the photovoltaic solar panel inventor; Bell Laboratories.   They were all excited about the great potential of PV for, amongst other things, "telephony."  Imagine where we would be in reduced fossil fuel dependence today if we had invested more or our fossil fuel "capital" over the past 58 years in PV production rather than squandering it on SUV production.  Check out the ad.



This bi-week's New Reality Quiz Question:

One of the essential resources that is becoming increasingly scarce these days is fresh water; much of which is used in the US to grow fruits and vegetables in California.  So, how many gallons of water does it take to grow a single peach in Kern County, California?  A) 2 gallons,  B) 5 gallons,  C)  63 gallons, or D) 142 gallons?

A closing note:  The two articles featured in this post were sent from a father (Thanks, Jeff for the Robert Reich piece) and his son (Thanks, Jake, for the David Simon piece) who follow the New Reality Check.  And thanks to my wife for finding the great PV ad featured in the quiz.  Such referrals and any feedback about what you read here are most welcome and appreciated.


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