Looking Forward, Looking Back

Wednesday 2011.05.11

Just recently, I read an article composed of assorted predictions on the US website of ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas.

There was an interesting entry there. Given the state of things around us right now, it is hard to consider this as somebody’s genuine prediction for the year 2011. It is, more realistically, obviously (to me, anyway) somebody’s effort at laying out things as they really should proceed over this year. It merits a good look.

“To arrive at my most important predictions for 2011, I have attempted to be insanely optimistic and skip the usual peak-everything stuff. The Happy New Year of 2011 will see a thorough public discussion of what needs to be done to make the US a more resilient society and economy. The federal government and Congress will start working together on the development of a massive national electrified railroad system to transport goods and people. We will come off our high horse and stop hallucinating about building bullet-train tracks in a railroad system that is decidedly mid-twentieth century or earlier. Many cities across the US will embark on the crash investment in light rail and other alternatives to cars.

Subsidies for corn, soybean, wheat and rice will be repealed and replaced with a thoughtful program of developing a robust, distributed system to produce a wide variety of healthy whole foods for all. The administration and Congress will wake up to the fact that an unhealthy, obese and generally uneducated population will require an insanely expensive healthcare system that will fail if the root causes of poor health are not eliminated.

Our schools will hire science teachers who live the practice and theory of science, not merely the theory of teaching. Many families across the US will dump game stations, idiotic TV, and iPhones in exchange for conversations and books. Neighborhoods will again become centers of civic activity and common thinking. We will occasionally stop and talk to the homeless, instead of giving them a dollar or a dirty look. Economists will discover that the Earth is spherical and finite, not an infinite mathematical plane with infinitely substitutable resources. Those of us who have animals and children will pet both and smile. Republicans will occasionally talk to the rest of us, and we will respond with kindness.”

Tad Patzek, chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin

That would be nice. This would involve a great amount of waking up. Mr. Patzek’s words about being “insanely optimistic” shows that he’s pretty realistic about this. In the current climate of things in the United States, any of this has a lot to overcome.

Predicting the future is tricky business. Predicting specifics is a fool’s game. It is possible to predict some very broad, general things, given enough information and thought, but even that’s a dicey little dance. To even try such a thing requires some serious examination of the past and present, but even then, one thing is apparent to me. If you even dare to attempt such things, it’s not just a matter of doing your best to be aware of the relevant information from the past and present. You have to try to guess how aware (and cognizant) other people are of the past and present.

The early part of February brought a lot of attention to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, and observing everything surrounding this put some things in a clear light. There’s a kind of widespread, pervasive phenomenon of people holding a sort of image of Ronald Reagan that, thirty years after he first took office as President of the United States, mostly seems to revolve around a mythology about Reagan and his presidency, with barely any connection to the historical reality.

Other people have written about this, so I’m going to save myself some typing.

Ronald Reagan’s 30-Year Time Bombs

ThinkProgress » 10 Things Conservatives Don’t Want You To Know About Ronald Reagan

Maybe best of all was this.

Embarrassed Republicans Admit They’ve Been Thinking Of Eisenhower Whole Time They’ve Been Praising Reagan

This is satire from The Onion, but as the best satire often is, it’s pretty thoroughly grounded in reality.

The Reagan mythology has pushed reality completely to the side for many people, and for the people who seem to have embraced that sort of alternate reality version of recent American history, it’s a tough task to try to clear the illusions. It’s as if you’re insulting their grandpa or something. One example of a way to convince me pretty thoroughly that you’re not operating in the realm of reality is to launch into effusive praise of Ronald Reagan as the ultimate example of leadership in “fiscally conservative, fiscally responsible government”.

During World War II, Dwight Eisenhower was a US Army general commanding Allied Forces in Europe. Ronald Reagan was an actor making cheesy films, technically in the military, strictly speaking, as part of some military filmmaking unit.

The differences between the two men as President of the United States, in their view of the American military forces and their role and use, was profound. Looking back at the differences between their individual experiences of World War II, an awful lot quickly becomes very clear.

Eisenhower as President was a man thoroughly grounded in reality, while Ronald Reagan seems to have been operating to some degree in a kind of two dimensional delusional fantasy world. It really was like eight years of “Ronald Reagan, starring as ‘The President of The United States’ “.

One of the most profound and important things to come from an American president speaking to the country came from Eisenhower in his farewell speech to the American people at the end of his second term as he was about to hand over the office.

Eisenhower gave his famous warning about “the military-industrial complex”, warning about the hazards of squandering the wealth and resources and energy of the country in building up some sort of military world empire. He was absolutely right. That has been largely ignored in the fifty years since that speech, and we’re dealing with the repercussions of this today.

There have been a couple of major, notable examples in somewhat recent history of a sitting American president speaking directly to the nation and laying out something very, fundamentally important, giving it to the citizenry straight.

One was Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” warning.

The other was Jimmy Carter speaking to the country about oil and energy resources and consumption.

Ronald Reagan became President, and all that was swept aside.

We could talk at length about the whole matter of people just assuming that the United States has a say about anything and everything anywhere in the world, with the US military being involved as a matter of natural course acting as some sort of worldwide empire international police force.

We could have long conversations about the almost grotesque irresponsibility and possibly sheer incompetence of supposed news media, regarding failures in covering things of importance, in depth, apparently preferring inane superficial chatter, and repeating the same inane superficial chatter, endlessly recycled. Inane superficial chatter from studio guests or via remote links is easier than serious journalism. What should be an opportunity, with the availablility of cable and satellite channels that could focus on journalism 24 hours a day, for informing people on a large scale about a great range of important subjects with detailed and deep reporting, ends up being endless babbling, constantly recycled to fill time, of speculation, and rumors, and opinions, often from people whose opinion I see little to no reason to regard seriously. The real farce comedy material is when some “panel” of clowns sits around speculating, and then chattering about their opinions about each other’s speculations. The echo chamber.

We’re decades past due time for a return to the concept we haven’t seen since World War Two, of the role of the military forces of the United States as being for the defense of the United States of America, and not as an international police force of a world empire. This is especially pressing considering the financial state of the country and the government, much more so given this state of things coupled with a present attitude among some people that the concept of corporations and wealthy people even so much as being required to pay taxes at a level they were a decade ago would be like communism or something.

I just read a piece on the web that addresses this general topic very well. Read and give it serious thought.

It’s way past time for Americans to stop thinking we run the whole world and focus our attention on getting our own corner of the planet straightened out.

A good start would be to get a grasp on what’s what in natural resources and the rate they’re gobbled up, especially those that are finite.

A good start would be to get a general grip on reality, a broad consensus about reality based on things as they really are. How can it be that such a thing should even need to be said?

A recent column from writer James Kunstler talks about this, and in the assorted comments that followed this piece (as is usual there, some of them thoughtful, informed, and some of them idiotic and useless), someone said “Most people don’t want to hear how bad things are. Charlie Sheen’s antics are much more enjoyable to watch (though I don’t actually own a tv and have no idea what he has done). Staying distracted is simply easier.”

I think that probably explains quite a lot. For too many people, staying distracted is simply easier, or, at least, they like to think so. So, on to the latest showbiz gossip and an obsessive fascination with the current season of “American Idol”.

This story pops up and grabs my attention. Yes, somebody is seriously suggesting the possibility of drawing oil from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve with the idea that this will smooth everything out nicely and make it all better regarding twitching prices of crude oil and retail fuel as market repercussions of trouble in Libya and the rest of the Middle East make people wig out and prices spike up.

Crude oil and gasoline prices have gone up over the long term, and day to day prices have been volatile, bouncing around wildly day by day, for years now. This is not a new phenomenon, it’s not going to be different in the future. It’s a sign of the widespread ignorance of matters involving petroleum that such a move would even be suggested to try to placate the people who have no understanding of what’s involved, the people who seriously seem to believe that this will somehow “fix the problems” regarding oil price spikes.

According to that story I pointed to, the current volume of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is 727 million barrels. Looking at recent years, the United States rate of oil consumption has been floating around 18 to 20 million barrels of crude per day. Do the few seconds of simple arithmetic. According to the information at hand here, the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve holds enough oil to supply current demands for around 36 to 40 days (calculating with a low and high of 18 or 20 Mbd). About a month and a half.

Now, we have the recent event of the huge earthquake just off the east coast of Japan and the tsunami that followed. Right at the moment as I type this sentence, multiple nuclear power plants are sites of extreme emergency as the people involved scramble furiously to try to get things under some sort of control. In the meantime, here in the US, as Japan struggles to deal with disaster compounded by disaster, people with dozens or even hundreds of television channels available through cable or satellite continue with obsessions with celebrity gossip melodrama, day by day events on the latest season of “American Idol”, and whatever other petty idiocy distracts them.

Looking forward, I don’t have a crystal ball of clairvoyance. Predicting the future in any kind of detail is tricky business in relatively simple times. We are not in simple times. We have a pretty large batch of complex interacting problems. Offering solutions to them is a challenge, to say the very least, but one of the greatest difficulties in it all is that there seems to be no shortage of people proclaiming their quick easy answers to all manner of problems, regardless of whether they even understand the problem. James Kunstler has said something in his writing and speeches and interviews more than once. With the problems we face, this kind of failure to even understand what the problems are is one of the very biggest problems of all, and if we are going to survive and carry on with human civilization, we had better develop a broad consensus of understanding of reality that’s actually based on how things are. This sounds so simple and obvious, but it doesn’t seem to be very common at the moment.

There are, however, some things that are pretty clear. No crystal ball magical clairvoyance needed.

As the United States faces serious, deep problems in many things, the financial state of the government is a huge problem among these. It’s decades past due time to face up to the single biggest factor there. Decades of pouring the resources of the country into trying to be a worldwide military empire has been a disasterous drain, with the added effect of making much of the rest of humanity view us as obnoxious arrogant goons. Time for that to end. Way past time. Time to do what should have been done decades ago, restore the status of the United States military to that needed to defend the country, not trying to cover the planet with military bases and forces and rule the world. Trillions of dollars have been squandered. Going back to Ronald Reagan again, see the example of the farce of the SDI project. (Referred to casually most of the time as “Star Wars”, apparently to the annoyance of George Lucas.)

Part of the mythology surrounding Ronald Reagan includes a popular idea of a mighty and principled Reagan being the great leader who “defeated communism” (in eastern Europe, anyway), when the reality is much different. Ronald Reagan didn’t “defeat communism”. In simplest form; communism defeated communism. In the course of all the jingoistic hubris and the perpetual self congratulation of the idea of “America, ruler of the Free World” ever since the end of World War Two, the biggest real effect has simply been to squander the wealth and resources of the United States and bankrupt the country.

Add that to the present day situation here in the US, as tax time comes around in April, where a significant portion of the country likes to hold this idea that even so much as returning income tax rates to what they were a decade ago (which were still significantly lower than the past), and having corporations pay taxes, would be communism or something. The consequences are ugly and very real. Government in the United States of America is bankrupt, or getting there, at all levels; local, state, and federal, while a large portion of the citizenry seem lost in a fog of confusion and full on delusion about what’s happening.

As tax time comes around, a little time spent examining the history of U.S. federal income tax rates is useful as a guide to reality in terms of how relatively undemanding the current personal income tax burden is for the upper income levels. Add to this a look at the history of the debt of the U.S. federal government over time since the end of World War Two. Review and draw your own conclusions.

Then read this. Soak that in for a while and reflect on it when you start hearing some chattering about the state of the finances of the federal government and all that surrounds it.

There is another thing you might look at, as I type this on the day tax returns are due here in the United States. In this year’s federal income tax return instructions, you can find a pair of pie-graph charts. One shows a distribution of categories of funding for the United States federal government, the other shows the distribution of categories of spending. Take a look at the “incoming” graph.

Approximately 23% of the funding of the federal government, according to this, comes from personal income tax revenue.

Approximately 40%
comes from money borrowed by the federal government to cover deficits, the missing difference between the government’s incoming revenues and the outlays.

Tax revenues from corporations?

Approximately 4% of tax revenues come from corporate taxes.

That’s not a typo.

Keep all that in mind as you hear people chattering about government deficits. Especially if the people talking are turning around and saying that we can’t have corporations paying a fair share of taxes, because that would “kill jobs and our economy” and be like communism or something, but we have to do something about cutting Social Security benefits that people might dare to collect after paying taxes into the Social Security fund over the course of a lifetime’s work, but also avoid the subject of the massive spending in the Department of Defense and everything else labelled “national security” (because somebody might say they’re “weak on America’s security”).

Detachment from reality rules here in the United States of America in the early 21st century. That must change. Reality is. It will be what it is whether we acknowledge it, or not, whether we understand it, or not.

The United States of America was formed by people fed up with the empires of Europe. The country was never intended to be an empire, the very idea of it becoming a sort of military empire trying to dominate the world would have repulsed them. Trying to create and maintain one has bankrupted the country, squandered so much it’s almost incomprehensible, compounded by the rise of dominance in American politics by people who would gladly sacrifice their own country to minimize or eliminate entirely their own tax payments, turning the basis of national government finances to a permanent procedure of perpetually borrowing money (while doing everything possible to avoid being held accountable to help repay the debts). The United States really did step in and pull the world’s chestnuts out of the fire when World War Two broke out. Unfortunately, after that was over, it seems that too many people got a little too fond of the idea that America was the natural ruler of the world, and it obviously didn’t help matters any that it appeared to lots of people that somebody had to keep some limits on the Soviets so they didn’t try taking over control of any part of the planet they could. The USSR disintegrated and even that was over two decades ago, and it’s questionable in retrospect how much if any of the “Cold War” games were necessary even before that.

That’s over, and was over quite some time ago.

The most basic study of history available to anyone who graduated from high school is enough to make something simple very clear. The history of the human race has shown us; empires never turn out well. They never have, they never will, and all of them thought, one way or another, that they were “special”, and it was only natural that they should rule the world.

How did that go?

Combine mad jingoistic, nationalistic, ambitions of Empire with people undermining any ideas that wealthy people or companies should pay a suitable share of taxes, and you find yourself in a nation hollowing itself out from the inside while it tries to expand itself in ambitions to control the world. Truly, utterly, fucked.

Here we are.

There’s no shortage of political noise about the state of the US federal government’s finances, but it seems just ridiculously obvious that there isn’t even anything like a serious start on addressing this stuff until a couple of basic things are faced: realistic taxes, and the reality that the United States government can no longer indulge in the astronomical expense of playing ruler and policeman of the world.

The subject of natural resources is a huge issue in any kind of discussion of the future of human civilization. This is stating the ridiculously obvious. Unfortunately, while there is a lot of serious, informed, intelligent attention and discussion being devoted to it, looking around, on television, in print media, on the web, in day to day life in people’s daily chatter, it seems unbelievably obscure. You really have to look for it. Even worse, there is far more noise on the subjects involved. The subjects of fuel resources and energy get buried in astronomical quantities of pure bullshit and deluded mental processes. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t rehash a lot of things again here.

Here in the United States, given the way we do things, how we do business and how we live, and the ways these things are organized, this is particularly acute and urgent. Petroleum is a subject that’s important in a way that just can’t be overstated, and the magnitude of ignorance and misinformation and misunderstanding is astounding. As I’ve written before, the people who know about geologist M. King Hubbert and the concept usually referred to as “peak oil” or “Hubbert’s peak” are a tiny minority, that seems very clear. Ask around. See how many people know what you’re talking about.

Even when people understand vaguely that petroleum is an issue, it usually is very vague, probably due to the usual items. It’s either the cost of gasoline when they get fuel, or something about the troubles elsewhere in the world where petroleum is found. Some people are aware enough to understand that petroleum is a finite resource, and by definition, it’s only going to last so long, but most of the time it seems to be regarded as something of a problem “sometime in the future”. People don’t get it.

It appears that most of the people who think they’re on top of this and aware of “oil problems” are divided into a pair of opposing camps; the people who think “oh, we have lots of oil, if only those environmental tree huggers would allow us to get it (i.e., the “drill, baby, drill” crowd”) and the people saying things like “we should develop clean, renewable energy like wind and solar to reduce our dependency on foreign oil” (and not understanding that these things do not function as oil does, there isn’t some magic swap to be done). The short form version: people talking about it without looking at numbers and doing the math.

In either of those stereotypical groups, what’s missing is the most obvious thing. The more fundamental matter of how we do things.

Recently I happened to see a special on CNBC, “Sprawling From Grace”. The subject is the whole phenomenon of suburban sprawl in the United States, something that became accepted as just how we do things, ever since the end of World War II. There is a lot to think about in that, from just the kind of lives people lead in this kind of way of organizing things, to the incredible waste of resources.

That might be the theme of the time waiting to kick us in the ass. Wasted resources. Blowing unbelievable, astronomical amounts of money for decades trying to be an empire covering the world. Abandoning cities and country to make some sprawling hybrid that is neither, forgetting the purpose of each. Wasting the finite resource of petroleum by this process, with the result that normal life for so much of America involves driving petroleum fueled motor vehicles substantial distances for everything we do.

On the public radio daily news show Here and Now, there was a story with an interview of a farmer and writer talking about a simple basic little matter that is part of the processes of life on Earth, and to a huge extent, in recent decades, abandoned and lost and forgotten or ignored. Farming has natural processes involved, it’s the fundamental stuff of the endeavor of growing food, and in recent times, much of this is shoved to the side. Farming has turned into “factory farm” operations, and whatever the case might be in terms of who owns and works the farms, standard practices in American farming has mostly become a process of dumping chemicals into the soil. This is mainly chemicals based on the stuff under “fossil fuels”, chemical based on petroleum or natural gas; finite resources. The problems with this have become more obvious to some people, whether it’s because they see a problem with food being produced in ways that are not based on the processes of nature, or because they see a huge area of consumption of those finite fuel resources. Both of these are a serious problem. What used to be a set of skills and knowledge practiced and passed along by generations of family farmers is becoming lost to some degree, forgotten as obsolete and replaced by processes of just pouring chemicals into soil that acts as a sponge, just a medium for this stuff.

It isn’t possible for me to look at this and think, what happens when the chemicals that modern American farming have come to depend on, as normal routine practice, are becoming a real problem because of supply, and the soil where food is grown is now just dead material?

It’s pretty easy to sit down and hammer out a blog essay and launch it into the vast web of the interknots proclaiming how you think it all is and should be, your crystal ball forecasts, visions, warnings, and whatever else you have rattling around. But sometimes, you really have to think, how can it be that people don’t seem to see and understand this stuff? That’s actually an easy one. I think the main, biggest, explanation is down to not being a matter of where somebody might be on a scale from genius insight omniscience to bone dead stupid oblivion. It’s just down to a matter of where attention is focused, and, today, some kind of epidemic, even pandemic, of people being distracted and consumed by petty bullshit. You don’t notice a lot of things when you’re all wrapped up in some talent contest television series or video games or keeping track of the score of who has the most new shiny crap collected.

I might think that man has unfortunately been tagged with a silly name, but Tad there is on to something, as are a few people I mention. It’s unfortunate that in tons of chattering bullshit, some words have been abused and misused and beat to bits to the point where their meaning has been lost or people are just numb to them, regarded as cliches. Years of political bullshit have done this to the word “value”, or “values”. But this matters. It’s simple. What is important? What’s not? Does it even matter to you to be aware of the world and life around you, and what’s going on?

We’re going to have serious problems because of these things, and that’s an easy prediction, because we already do have serious problems because of these things. We either wake up, or these follies are going to just knock us flat.







Predictions for 2011 :: ASPO-USA: Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas



Ronald Reagan’s 30-Year Time Bombs



ThinkProgress » 10 Things Conservatives Don’t Want You To Know About Ronald Reagan



A graph of U.S. federal government debt


Dwight D. Eisenhower Farewell Address (January 17, 1961)



The Tyranny of Defense Inc. – Magazine – The Atlantic



The American Empire Is Collapsing Before Our Eyes in the Mideast | News & Politics | AlterNet



Clusterfuck Nation- March 7, 2011- Reality Optional Nation



White House: Oil reserves eyed as oil prices rise – Business – msnbc.com



Federal income tax rate history

Click to access fed_individual_rate_history-20110323.pdf


Tomgram: Chris Hellman, $1.2 Trillion for National Security | TomDispatch



Farmer Calls For ‘Managing Manure To Save Mankind’ | Here & Now


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