Thursday, September 22, 2005

Will Katrina and Rita tip us past the point of no return?

Peak oil, is, again, not about how much oil is in the ground. It is about the price of oil, and its availability to ordinary people. That availability is about to change yet again - with the second nightmare hurricane in a month. Hurricane Rita, at category 4, is presently heading towards our main oil shipping lanes, 30% of our refinery capacity, all of our diesel refining capacity and a large portion of our natural gas production - the latter of which cannot be replaced by offshore inputs.

The loss of diesel refining capacity is particularly troublesome, since our trucking and agricultural industries depend almost entirely on diesel. So what we're discussing are higher prices for gas - and every single other thing that people depend on. Heat. Food. Clothing. Power.

The economy has mostly absorbed $3 gallon gas, although with some pain, most of it to the poor, but some resonating through the economy (Walmart's falling profits, etc...) But can it absorb $4 or $5 gas and heating oil, just as we enter the heating season. Can it absorb the loss of diesel production just as harvesting and food production is at its most intense across the nation? I guess we'll see.

In the end, it may not matter how much oil the Saudis or the Russians have. If ordinary people can't afford to buy heating oil, or drive to work, the cycle of collapse begins, long before the last drops come out of the ground.


Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The population issue - from a women with four children

I'm probably the last person who should ever be allowed to comment on this, and yet it would be intellectually dishonest not to confront it on some level. I spend my time exhorting people to prepare, to consume less, to need less, and yet I keep having children. That not all of them were exactly planned is not really an excuse - I certainly was not displeased by the situation. And I do think we have to talk about this, and think about this, and maybe consider some public solutions - I simply hope they will not be the repressive ones that I fear over the longer term.

The world sustainable carrying capacity is probably somewhere between 1 and 2 billion people. we've got about 6.5 billion at the moment, and we're going to make 7. I still remember when we achieved six, just five years ago. I was pregnant with Eli, an irony I did not miss. The official six billionth was identified as a little girl, born in rural India, and this seemed grotesque to me - my little boy, born a few months later here, will consume five times the resources of that girl. To use the western world's vision of the "culprits" of overpopulation is unjust - because my children are the culprits. For all that I try to reduce my consumption and my children's consumption, there is no doubt whose children are the problem. Which is why I would argue that the best and only serious way to address this is to focus on the consumption issues, and the positive things that make men and women want to have fewer children.

I'm not sure there's much we can do about the overpopulation problem without becoming essentially a fascist society. Beyond simply keeping women's lives as healthy and secure and free as possible - what solution could possibly exist that would allow us to remain ethical and human? China solves its problems by draconian restrictions upon private people, ones I do not want to see enacted on myself or my daughters in law. And in addition to those restrictions, it (and other poor nations) resolves its problems by having an available outlet among rich nations for its unwanted children. What happens when that outlet dries up, because of political controversy and the sheer cost of moving prohibited children around the globe? What happens to those children in orphanages afterwards? Who would take our "extra" babies?
These questions are not as arcane as they sound - while in the short term the primacy of the religious right is unlikely to make this an immediate crisis, in the long term when population pressures grow, demographic anxiety and violence towards those perceived as "in excess" grows too.

I'm not sure I'm the right person to address the biology of having children - not because I don't have a strong desire to have children, but because I couldn't care less if they were born of my flesh - in many ways, my husband and I would actually have preferred to adopt, except that doing so meant allowing the government to regulate our lives and limit our activities to a significant degree, or, had we chosen private or international adoption, it would have cost us thousands and thousands of dollars we did not have. Don't get me wrong - I wouldn't trade my children now for anything, and I take some pleasure in figuring out who they look most like, but I don't identify in the slightest with the "must have a perfect,white baby that looks just like hubby and me." Frankly, if one looked carefully at those related to either one of us, you'd note that the odds are better that I will be able to stand you if you *aren't* biologically related to either one of us.

Restricting the right of people to procreate generally comes with some disturbing trends. First of all, as our culture becomes poorer and probably more traditional,we're going to start valuing some children over others (ok, we already do - let's think about how much outrage there would have been if a lot of white children were dying of dehydration in New Orleans) - in many nations, for example, the trend is to valuing boys over girls, in addition to the obvious preference for white and non-disabled children. In the US, the trend actually runs quite strongly in the opposite direction - girls are perceived as easier, healthier, preferrable. My mother was an adoptive placement social worker for the state of MA for many years, and at least in that state, all boys are harder to place than all girls, and boys qualified as "unadoptable" or "special needs" (the latter of which doesn't necessarily mean any disability -just hard to place) on average 2 years before a girl (for example, whiteness being valued, a white boy was defined as special needs at 5, where as a white girl up to 7 was cosidered potentially adoptable. When you get into non-white children, an african-american male child was considered unadoptable as soon as he left babyhood, more or less.) Sex selection technology is also used overwhelmingly to get girls in the US - both to select out disabilities, but also just for female preference - more than 85% of the requests at most facilities are for daughters, overwhelmingly driven by mothers who prefer female children. If this continues, I wouldn't be surprised to see that in a one-child society, we have as huge an "extra boy" syndrome as China has an "extra girl" one. And, as the mother of a child with a disability who costs his community and school system an awful lot, I suspect that disabled children, already less valued in the commodity market of child adoption, will be subject to measures that are pretty horrible. When middle class women stop being able to afford amniocentesis to abort babies that would be "too much to handle," what will become of those babies?

The best solutions to unsustainable reproductive rates we've ever found so far are freedom for women, easy access to birth control, education for women, good prenatal and pediatric care and reproductive freedom. This is yet another argument for not returning to patriarchal culture - for example, highly educated women with significant careers only have children about 40%of the time - and the numbers get lower as they become more powerful. The more educated, autonomous and healthy women and their children are, the fewer they have, generally speaking (I'm not a good example right here ;-).

In order to be even remotely just, any restriction on fertility has to impact men as well - male behavior, male beliefs about the value of women, and male fertility - this isn't just a woman's problem, and cannot be. For example, women in patriarchal cultures that are dependent upon men for support depend on not only husbands, but sons to support them in their old age. Male pressure to procreate, and male desire to have fertile wives can also be a very powerful driving force - and men, in my observation, are often more reluctant than women to care for the babies of others, possibly for reasons of evolutionary psychology. (On this subject, and slipping a bit of my dissertation in, the philosopher Stanley Cavell is a fascinating read - he argues that skepticism of all kinds originates in the inability of men to ever know with certainty if they are the fathers of their children - one might read his _Disowning Knowledge_ or_The Claim of Reason_ were anyone besides me even remotely interested.) So all those things have to be addressed if we are ever to have any kind of public attempt to lower the birthrate or restrain fertility.

Keeping infant mortality low is also key - it is very hard to persuade women not to get pregnant over and over again if they are going to lose their children young to the diseases of poverty- a woman who is trying to get one or two children to adulthood might have to have as many as 5 or 6 in a society with poor survival rates. Raising children up in societies perpetually at war raises another issue, and a key one for those of us in the priveleged west who are presently at war with the idea of terrorism - parents who believe theywill lose their sons to military machines have reason to keep having them - or at least keep trying for daughters. And those, like we Americans, who will presumably have to risk their daughters as well are doubly so inspired. I know that our nation's language of perpetual war causes me blind terror when I think about my little boys. If you want people toobey your restrictions on reproduction, they need children that live. It is truly that simple. America has the worst infant mortality rates in the industrial world, especially among the poor. As our economy softens and fades, if we want to keep the birthrate stable or down, we must, must, must, put our resources into prenatal care and pediatric care, and we must not send all of our children to war.

I will say that the urge to have children is basic and profound - speaking as someone who never particularly cared whether her childrenwere biological or not, the experience of carrying and nursing an infant comes with some hormone and reptile-brain level intensities about them. I am told (and believe) that that is true of the children you adopt as well. We might look at Hannah's prayers to G-d in her barrenness, or at the journals that 17th century women wrote before childbirth to their unborn child - maternal mortality being a major issue, women entered childbirth expecting to die, and yet often also entered it willingly, even joyfully, despite the stakes. For myself, I see the necessity of children as a kind of meaning-making - I'm not sure I could stir up the passion required to ensure my own survival in the fact of a crisis - but the survival, happiness and security of my children, and their children, now that inspires me. All of which is just a way of saying that the reproductive nut is going to be a very, very hard oneto crack.

The very best that those of us who are priveleged to give birth into a world of reasonable security and wealth can do is to try with all our might to absorb less, consume less, take less, so that the babies of others can have just a little bit more.


The view from the peak

People sometimes mistake the peak oil issue for the question of "when will the oil run out." The answer is effectively, never. There will always be some theoretically extractable oil in the ground - how much depends on what we can afford to extract.

We're on the way down from the peak, or will be very shortly, and the ride down is a lot bumpier than the ride up was. But it doesn't look like all of the oil suddenly disappearing - it shows up as inflation, unemployment, poverty. It looks kind of like this - suddenly, we're making choices we never thought we would have to.

Just as an example, near me there's a family that sells organic, grass fed beef. They don't make a ton of money - their annual returns pay the taxes and give them a buffer. They do other work - cut hay, substitute teach in the winter, etc... But they sell wonderful meat, sustainably raised, without the hormones and the other crap, and they do ok. But I don't have a lot of hope for their future, because it is predicated on a healthy economy, and people being able to pay what their food is worth, rather than the artificially low prices that supermarkets offer.

The thing is, their costs are higher because they truck their beef to a small packing house they trust and have it butchered there, and then sell it back to the consumer. They keep it in their freezer, and pay regular electric bills for it. They have to buy some hay now and again, and pay their vet bills - and so do the industrial farmers. But because they have 70 cows, not 2000, they don't have the economies of scale. Feeding their animals on grass instead of cheap corn means that it takes longer to raise them, and the investment is comparatively

In the industrial model, economies of great scale absorb most of the cost of the automated killing system, the energy costs of refrigeration at the time of slaughter and during aging, in the truck on the way to the supermarket, in the supermarket. We all barely notice that we pay the cost of lighting, cooling or heating the supermarket, the cost of employing the butcher (which is in part a fuelcost - you have to pay him enough to drive to work from the next suburb over, and to heat his house with oil.) The handling costs have oil expenses in them - it is presently cheaper to hire one guy with a forklift to unload the meat, rather than 20 guys with strong backs. There's only a little oil cost here, and little there, but it adds up. At $2.00 per gallon, the cost is, maybe, 15 cents lb. No problem - if it gets too pricey, I'll just quit buying roasts.

Not a big deal, I still can afford an occasional roast, maybe I'll just eata few more beans and a bit more hamburger. But wait a minute - gas is up to 3 no 4 no 5.00 dollars per gallon (I know, you think it won't happen - of course it would never go as high as 3.50...right?) - now the roast costs $1.20 lb more. No problem, as I said, I'll just stop buying roasts. Beef isn't good for you anyway But even the hamburger costs $4 lb, and I'm spending more of my income on electric bills, heat and commuting - so no more hamburger either. Just spam and beans. So now beef isn't selling well - and the nice neighbors with the family farm who provided a sustainable alternative isn't making anything any more - because the bottom has dropped out of the beef market, but her land taxes haven't gone down any.

Oh, and let's not forget the supermarket butcher (he's also a neighbor) - the overhead costs for the supermarket have increased dramatically (very expensive to keep that a/c running all summer) and meat sales are down, so they've fired two of their four butchers and cut the hours back on the others. The laid off meat cutters are now collecting unemployment, along with everyone else whose employers are trying to keep their bottom line going. And there's a lot of them - the travel industry got a 1-2 punch with rising airline fuel costs (note that two more airlines enter bankruptcy today - shocked?), and with the lack of disposable income. Retailers are feeling the pinch as people buy fewer luxuries (remember Walmart's falling profits - so far iti is the poor and lower middle class who are cutting back on their buying). All those white collar Dilbert jobs my friends have - an awful lot of those are optional to the other companies that make up most of their business, so now the Gap and Banana Republic are having a bad Christmas, since the computer guys and the advertising people are feeling a pinch....

And none of those laid off are buying much beef anymore, either. The nice old lady who used to buy eye of round and drive it back to her house down the road has to choose between her medications and her dinner, since the price of her digoxin is up 500%. She's going to the food pantry now, along with the unemployed butcher. People are still buying food, of course, but now the competition is on for the cheapest prices, and Walmart has them - so the middle class who still have jobs but are feeling the inflationary pinch and getting nervous start shopping there. They no longer buy organic produce, or fancy salads, or $4 cups of coffee. Our nearest supermarket can't afford to sell hamburger at the same price as Walmart, and so they fold, putting all their workers out of work, and adding just another little pinch to everyone who doesn't live next door to a Wallyworld and has to drive there (all 8 remaining citizens ;-).

And the oil prices are up more, because of lost refinery capacity (been paying attention to the news from Katrina?) and the necessity of upgrading refineries to handle the lower grade of crude now being extracted (this was underway even before Katrina, and is among the best concrete evidence of peak oil I've ever seen). Now a lot of peopleare spending 20% of their income on commuting costs, and more if they have to heat or cool their houses - those that still have jobs and houses, that is. Now roasts aren't the issue for most of them - the price of potatoes is. See most ofthem are grown in Idaho (in fact, even though New York grows an awful lot of potatoes, most supermarkets don't carry them!), and the shipping, fuel, spraying andrefrigeration costs have driven them up to $1.80 lb - and of course,*EVERY SINGLE THING* is rising too - toilet paper, beer, soap, diapers, beets, cheese, flour, onions, chocolate, heating oil, natural gas, water bills, medical costs, town taxes (lost sales revenue means they've got to cut services, raise taxes or both to keep the plows and school buses running) - everyone has more overhead. Everyone's materials cost more. That extra 30 cents doesn't matter, until it is multiplied by 1000 every month. And until, trying to keep afloat, most middle class families are down to one, or no income.

Then we make choices - soup with meat or without...again? Bread and gravy for dinner? Heat off if it is above freezing? Heat off even below it? Desperately needed heart surgery or mortgage payment? Emergency room visit for daughter's asthma or electric bill? New shoes for the kids or a coat for Mom? Sound familiar? These are the troubles ordinary, plain old poor people have - except without cheap energy, a whole lot more of us, maybe even everyone, falls into that category eventually.

There will be oil in the ground, and gas in the gas stations - the ones that stay open, anyhow. But who will be buying? And how will we refigure our economy to bring back and reduce costs on things that only cheap oil made possible?


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Breeder Stuff

Well, second ultrasound accomplished (too many contractions), and all looks well with the little one. And it is boy #4. I'm going to admit something here that Mommys are not supposed to admit. I was really hoping for another boy.

It isn't that I don't like girls. I do. I desperately envy my friends who are the parents of daughters for many things, not least the fact that they get to buy much cuter baby clothes. But I so enjoy watching the dynamic of brotherhood among my other three boys, that I was reluctant to change it with someone who would be different. I love the fact that the three of them spend so much time rolling around like a pile of puppies. When my sisters and I did that, we were trying to kill each other. But my boys just seem to enjoy the benign and affectionate violence they do to one another, almost wholly by accident. I'm mystified, but loving it. And thus, the moderate preference for another male. Eric, sadly, longs for a daughter, and shall never get her from my loins (I am DONE!!!).

I can't actually believe I'm even doing this a fourth time. If there is a woman who hates pregnancy more than myself (besides Lois McMaster Bujold - read her novels and see a loathing of childbirth even more profound), I've yet to meet her. And by this point, it doesn't even have the virtue of novelty - at the end of the fourth pregnancy, any new experience is bound to be awful. There's just no, "oh wow, I've never had hemerhoids/a cessation of fetal movement/searing sciatica neat." All the good parts of pregnancy have already happened (first heartbeat, first sight of the new baby, first flutters, birth), and its all downhill from here.

One of the most annoying sensations to me is the fact that my brain turns into a Don Delillo novel. For the last few months of pregnancy and the first few afterwards, I find myself hearing fragments of advertising, song lyrics, and fixated by fun topics of thought like, "Did I expose the baby to unacceptable levels of dioxin by chewing on the caps of my pens all those years." Mix that in with the lyrics from Simon's Winnie the Pooh video, some footage of a natural disaster and the soundtrack to a Subway commercial and you have my mind at night. I start out trying to relax to thoughts of garden planning and end up in a beer commercial with South Park overlaid. It is very like having an exceedingly annoying tenant who won't turn the radio down.

Unfortunately, I still have 6 more weeks until I achieve full termness - and trust me, I'll be doing all I can to arrange tenant eviction after that. I adore babies. I love how soft and sweet they are. I don't even mind all the attention and energy they require. But I sure as heck resent it when they make send out their negotiators from inside me, and hold my liver hostage.



Ok folks - so you don't store food, you don't have an emergency plan, you don't have a back-up arrangement for friends and relatives, you don't believe peak oil is coming (never mind those "temporary" gas prices over $3.00), and you think that those of us who worry about that sort of thing are out of our minds. Sure, you believe we should all be conserving more energy, but not in any way that actually *hurts*...

And you are right, there is something strange, surrounded by so very much plenty, about fixating on poverty and loss. But without that fixation (even with that fixation, but you can lower the risk more than a bit) we are all a few steps away from hunger, dehydration, being a refugee. At least, Katrina should point out that message.

Think about those people whose infants and elders died of dehydration. A portable, high quality water filter would have saved some formula fed infants' lives (an actual policy in which we *truly* encouraged nursing and actually worked to make it possible for all mothers would have done much, much more!) and kept people's elderly parents alive. For those trapped in their homes for an extended period, a supply of stored water, stored food and medical supplies could save lives. A way of doing most things without electricity could mean a quality of life not available to others, the difference between a frightening adventure and a terrifying ordeal.

For those who have had family descend upon them, and fear the economic consequences, stored food and other materials could mean the difference between being able to offer help with an open hand and struggling to feed an expanded family.

Do it. Do it now. Plan for a future less promising than right this second. Plan for the day that you need to leave your house at a dead run, and can only take what you can cram in the car. Plan for the day that you can't get to the grocery store, and the water stops coming out of the tap, and you have children to feed. Plan for the day that hard times hit and you have no job, no money. Plan for the day your entire extended family has to come live with you. Stockpile food. Pack a bug-out bag (a short term supply of necessities). Store some extra blankets and pillows, some empty soda bottles full of water. Put up the rainbarrel and buy that water filter. You can manage it, and if you never need it, you can tell everyone that the wacko on the blog made you do it, and laugh at me.