Friday, June 27, 2014

Observations, June 2014

Here in LA you'd never guess that the state of California is weathering the worst drought in its history. Lawns and gardens are green, flowers bloom, the infamous palms have yet to succumb to desiccation. But when I walk out in the hills I see a different landscape, parched beyond recognition -- beyond anything I've seen or could have imagined in years past.

I've spent a good part of the last year reading up on the latest climate change data, and I've learned that the outlook is very bad, far worse than most people know. Part of that story is the Western drought: unceasing, intensifying, bewildering. The fires will be very bad. If not this year, then soon. It cannot be any other way without rain.

In the US -- ostensibly still among the wealthiest nations on earth -- the income chasm between rich and poor has grown to be nearly unbreachable by any mortal soul. The disparity has grown stunning. The stinging contrast between the insatiable consumption of the wealthy and the utter dejection of most everybody else assaults my senses and vexes my sense of justice.

Elsewhere in the world there's a growing fire of a different kind as nation after nation is consumed by uncontrollable conflagrations of violence. These fires are burning now out of control and apparently spreading. Iraq, a country utterly destroyed by the US, not once but twice, now burns with ethnic and religious hatred, as do Syria, the Sudan, Egypt, Nigeria, and so on. A UN count announced yesterday tallies the number of refugees on earth to be  some 50 million, greater than at any time since the end of Second World War, if not in all of human history.

Yet around me I see only a great and willful denial of reality. People are desperate to believe everything is ok, but it's not and deep inside, below the scan of the conscious, we all know it. The culture of denial is now endemic. The Great Lie has taken on a life and logic of its own. People can barely pull their faces out of their smartphones long enough to note their immediate surroundings, much less take an interest in the great forces at work in the world. The Great Lie persists, even in the face of overwhelming negation.

All this leaves me exasperated and exhausted, grasping for a foothold on the featureless cliff face of reality.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Here On The Ground: Where is My Goddam Recovery?

From the AP last week comes this gem: US job market recovers losses yet appears weaker. According to the authors, "The U.S. economy has finally regained all the jobs lost during the 'Great Recession.'" Great news. Now for the bad news, "Three generally low-paying industries account for more than one-third of the job gains in the recovery: restaurants and bars; temporary staffing; and retail..." So to summarize: The "recession" is over, the jobs are back! Unfortunately, most of the new jobs are at Walmart. In the process of this so-called "recovery," US median income has dropped $3300 below what it was prior to the "recession"; which if one adjusts for (supposedly nonexistent) inflation, means Americans are earning quite a bit less than they were before. It seems the conversion of the US economy to an executive-and-slave model is now almost complete.

Notice that the word "recession" is set in quotes when used above. This is intentional. It is my firm contention that the so-called Great Recession is not a recession at all. The term "recession" implies a temporary slowdown in an economic system, and I would propose that what we're experiencing is not a temporary dip, but the start of an inexorable decline.

"The recovery is well under way." How many times have you heard that statement in the news recently? The Robber Barons and their all-too-willing mouthpieces love to regurgitate the Great Lie hoping we'll swallow their deceit whole hog. "Unemployment is down, the housing market is bouncing back." This is the story we're being told by the newsbots. I don't know about you, but that story does not quite comport with what I see around me. I see a whole lot of empty storefronts on the main drag. I see the supermarket cashiers looking far older than they used to. I see a large number of friends and acquaintances -- well-educated, middle-aged men and women with 20 years' or more experience -- unable to find jobs in their respective fields. They must think we're chumps.

We live in a time when the most dispensable workers -- the corporate raiders, the high-volume traders, the hedge fund managers -- are compensated in the billions of dollars while the truly indispensable workers -- farmers, road builders, people who actually produce the things we need -- can barely earn a subsistence wage. What kind of society is this? Clearly something is very, very wrong here. It's my contention that the decline is now well under way and well overdue. What is so startling though is how obvious the reasons for the decline are -- they're plainly hung out in the open, for all but the most deluded to see. Let me outline three of the primary reasons why I think the US economy is already half in the bag:

1. You can only export so many jobs to China before it affects the domestic economy. It's unreasonable and untenable to expect every person in the US to be an engineer, stockbroker, or biotechnologist. Large numbers of people are entirely unsuited to these vocations. And many of the otherwise suitable candidates are prevented from employment by the education-for-elite-only system that exists here. And so the Titans of Silicon Valley lobby the federal government to admit more foreign-born engineers, while at the same time the products those engineers design are being built back in their home countries.

2. Big banks and wealthy individuals can only horde so much wealth before it begins to affect the liquidity of everyone else. It's quite a simple principle: every economic system depends on money flowing through it. Everyone benefits when the bucks are flowing, Robber Barons and common folk alike. I don't know why economists continually attempt to obfuscate this simple fact, although I suspect it's related to their desire to keep their jobs. When the holders of the cash don't spend it -- such as by refusing to pay their workers a living wage, or by workers not buying things because they're fearful about the future -- the entire economy slows or fails.

3. The cost of energy, which is baked into everything, can only increase. The entire "modern" world you see around you is totally and utterly based on the availability of low-cost energy -- everything from the skyscrapers to the online booksellers. Unfortunately (in more ways than one), our energy is almost 100% sourced from fossil fuels: petroleum, coal, natural gas. These are all non-renewables, which is to say that the cost of producing them can only go in one direction (yes, up). Again I don't understand what the big mystery is about this. Excepting price fluctuations attributable to varying market conditions, the real cost of energy continues to increase. Although runaway energy price increases have thus far been averted due a combination of industry tricks and softened demand, the overall direction of change has, and can only be, upward. This ain't rocket science, people. The cost of commodities dependent on energy (i.e., everything) will continue to rise at the same time that fewer people can afford them. This further weakens an already seriously compromised economic system.

So if you have been wondering lately why this "recovery" you've been hearing so much noise about hasn't helped you make this month's rent, take heart, so has everybody else. The real question of course is not when (or if) will the economy will recover, but how should we respond to these great changes, which are happening now, all over the world? For now, I'm going to leave that question for a future musing.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Climate Change Facts - What We Know as of June 2014

"Over the years of research, we have consistently found that, on average, Americans view climate change as a threat distant in space and time – a risk that will affect far away places, other species, or future generations more than people here and now." - Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in November 2013, George Mason University, Center for Climate Change Communication.

In my extensive readings about climate change over the last year or so, it has become abundantly clear that the reality of the situation is quite a bit different from what is usually presented in the media. Insofar as they are aware of climate change at all, most Americans believe anthropogenic climate change is a problem to be concerned about in the distant future, not now. They may believe that the concern is with some few degrees of global temperature rise over the course of a century of more, and therefore that we have plenty of time to figure out a solution. The latest science however tells quite a different story. Not only is global temperature not a good measure of the severity of the situation, but the problem may in fact be very urgent. The most recent data indicates a so-called abrupt climate event could well occur within our lifetimes, taking the majority of humanity to, and possibly over, the precipice. Let me lay out some of those facts for you and you can draw your own conclusions.

- Atmospheric CO2 concentrations passed 400ppm this year. (Source.)

- The last time CO2 concentrations were this high was at least 800,000 years ago, and some studies indicate it may have been as much as 15-25 million years ago. Obviously this is way before humans were around and the global environment was very different from what we know from the last 10,000 years (the approximate age of so-called "civilization"). (Source.)

- Half of the carbon emissions in human history were released within the last 30 years. (Source.)

- There is a time lag between when carbon is released into the atmosphere and when the atmosphere begins to show its effects (known as "climate lag" or "thermal inertia"). Studies indicate this time lag to be somewhere between 25 and 100 years. The most likely time frame is somewhere around 40 years, which would mean that the warming and atmospheric effects we are currently experiencing are likely less than half of what we can expect from carbon that has already been released. (Source.)

- The polar regions are warming much faster than the rest of the planet. (Source.) This is very worrisome for the three following reasons.

- The first is that loss of ice and snow cover reduces the reflectivity (known as "albedo") of the earth's surface, thereby accelerating warming. (Source.)

- The second is that there are vast amounts of methane (a very powerful greenhouse gas) in polar seas and permafrost that could be released by increased temperatures in the polar regions. (Source.)

- The third is that melting ice releases massive amounts of freshwater into the oceans, which can affect global ocean currents. (Source.)

- Though scientists know that methane emissions are increasing, they don't know the exact rate of increase or how it will affect the climate because it's only been studied for a few years. However there is considerable concern that arctic methane, if released into the atmosphere, would cause a so-called runaway climate change event. (Source.)

- Climate scientists know that there have been times in the history of the planet when the global climate underwent a drastic change in less than a decade (possibly as rapidly as a year or two). (Source.)

- Although the exact causes of abrupt climate change events are not agreed upon by scientists, there seems to be a consensus that a slowing of global ocean circulations is involved. If that is the case, we should be very concerned because polar warming has the potential to disrupt global ocean circulation and may already be doing so. (Source.)

So, now we know the facts, what are we supposed to do with this information? That's a reasonable question and I wish I had a simple answer for it. Honestly, I do not blame people for wanting to deny the reality of climate change -- it is terrifying and seemingly inexorable. So now what?

I do know that the first step has to be acknowledgment and understanding of the facts, on an emotional, as well as intellectual, level. In buddhist practice, the end of suffering begins with the acceptance that we are, in fact, suffering. Likewise, the first step in healing, or least surviving, such a global calamity is to look at the problem straight on and to acknowledge both its reality and magnitude. I'll revisit this topic again, but for now I'll just say that it's my firm belief that our list of actions for the immediate future should include preparing ourselves and our children psychologically for what most likely awaits us in the coming years.

Welcome, Homo Sapiens!

Welcome to the Haughty Ape. This blog is dedicated to saying what I feel needs to be said. I know no one will read it or, if they do, they will not give a rat's ass what I have to say. It doesn't matter to me. I'm sick of pulling my punches and keeping my mouth shut or, worse, telling people what they want to hear. 

So, about me (I know you're dying to know this): I'm a pretty normal guy. At the moment, I live in California. I used to work in technology. Now I mostly play the guitar and write about stuff nobody gives a crap about. Any questions?