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Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Long Emergency -- October 9, 2010

I have been through over 17 years of calamitous events from my arrest, trial, conviction, appeals, and various difficulties during my incarceration, including a recent placement in Segregation. However, The Long Emergency is not about my life, but the name of a book I have been preoccupied reading most of this week. The book's full title is The Long Emergency - Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, and was written by James Howard Kunstler in 2004. The book has nothing to do with the criminal justice system or the trials and tribulations of criminal defendants. It is a book about the depletion of fossil fuels, most notably oil, and the author's cataclysmic vision of the future.

This book was sent to me by a pen pal a few years ago, and I never got around to reading it until just now. My pen pal has sent me a number of books over the years that he thought were of profound interest. I have read all of them soon after receiving them, and discussed them at length in long letters, except for this last one. For the last several years, I have been absorbed in other interests and preoccupations. I have also not been so motivated to write my friend I met through an online website seven years ago. Other than family, I have corresponded longer with him than anyone else, including my former girlfriend. After so many years, however, I suppose the motivation to keep in touch has diminished, and this has been a mutual progression.

The Long Emergency is a hardbound book, and one of the few I have. Over the years, it has been stored in my correspondence box only to be taken out to be used as a writing board or an exercise accessory to do one-leg calf raises on. Sometimes I have even used it as a lid on a bowl to allow some type of instant food to cook. Unfortunate that I have abused this book, because it was a rather good read. Quality constructed hard bound books that I have read and valued, I send home to be kept for me. Although I did not agree completely with the author, it is a book I would have liked to add to my collection. At home, I have a bookcase filled with books I have read and sent home. This book could have been a nice addition, but over the years it has become shabby looking and the corners are now bent.

The Long Emergency is over 300 pages long, and I read about 50 pages a day. I could have completed this book in 3 days if I just read through it without contemplation. However, with all nonfiction books I spend the time to read, I underline parts and take notes. After reading a section, I will review my notes or highlighted areas. People with autism are thought to possess photographic memories. I suppose many who think this have watched the movie The Rain Man too often. I do not have a photographic memory, only an acute observation and sometimes obsession for detail. While reading the book, I wrote 12 pages of notes, and my note taking and my musings took far more time than the actual reading.

James Kunstler's book is not ordered very well, and he goes over various subject matter repetitively and in a haphazard way. Nonetheless, the book was very intriguing and filled with numerous facts. The author may not be a great writer, but it was apparent that he spent a lot of time researching. As a person interested in history, politics, and investments, particularly natural resource companies, I was engrossed from cover to cover. Although I disagreed with a number of deductions and the author's prediction of an apocalyptic demise of modern civilization, as a survivalist with a disdain for this "progressive" society, the book captured my imagination. I wish I had read it a long time ago.

In Segregation without any cell mate, I was able to devote my full attention to reading. To block out the noise and goings-on of the Roundhouse zoo, I often read with earplugs in my ears or with headphones on listening to music or WLS talk radio. Segregation is a good time to have a supply of books to read because there are less distractions. It is for this reason I have hoarded a number of books and novels. Years ago when I first came to the penitentiary, it was easy to avoid Seg because only people that committed serious crimes were sent here. However, now that the guards have strict control over the prison and have made numerous petty rules, an inmate can go to Seg for almost any reason. Even when you have not done anything to break the litany of rule infractions, a prisoner can end up in Seg. Prisoners are sent to Seg on falsified charges, or the mere suspicion of violating a rule. This is my fourth week in Seg under investigative status for suspicion of an act I am still uncertain of. In any event, it is a good policy to have a collection of books ready for the inevitable trip to Seg.

Chapter 1 is called "Sleepwalkers Into the Future," and is a preview to the rest of the book. The title refers to how the vast majority of Americans do not realize the impending doom just over the horizon brought on by the end of cheap fossil fuels, and ultimately all fossil fuels. Current modern society is centered around the abundance of oil, natural gas, and coal, and when it ceases to exist, or becomes too expensive to extract, our way of life will cease to exist, bringing cataclysmic changes. If this was not enough, James Kunstler writes about how global population levels have reached unsustainable levels and a population of 7 billion has had a disastrous effect on the planet. The author predicts the depletion of natural resources, diseases, famines, strife and war, as well as global warming. Free trade, the out-sourcing of U.S. manufacturing jobs, along with a ridiculous spree of government and consumer spending will, and is already, crushing the American economy. All these things will converge together in the 21st Century to bring about the collapse of society.

The author writes at length about the history of oil, and is inundated with numerous facts. Much of this I was already aware of, but not nearly in such depth. Oil first began to be used in earnest in the mid-18th century when it was discovered in Pennsylvania with a drill used for wells of water. The power and enormous potential of oil was not initially realized, and Pennsylvanians used the oil as a replacement for whale oil in lamps. In cities, kerosene replaced gas lighting from coked coal which was dangerous, hot, noisy and could not be moved around. Kerosene lighting was a new technology highly valued in the Civil War. Oil was also quickly used as a substitute for animal lard lubricant to run machines. It was not until John D. Rockefeller in the late 1800's that the oil industry took off in the U.S. Elsewhere, oil's production, refinement, and marketing capabilities soared by the likes of the Rothschilds and the Englishman, Marcus Samuel. Rockefeller created the giant corporation, Standard Oil, which was eventually broken up by Theodore Roosevelt into several companies that are still around today: Exxon Mobile, Conoco Philips, and Chevron. Marcus Samuel created Royal Dutch Shell, the logo of which is seen on many corner gas stations to this day in America and in Europe.

From such small beginnings, oil has taken over to be essential to our modern industrialized society as the author comprehensively describes throughout his book. Oil is used to create all the plastics, rubber, and many chemicals we use on a daily basis, whether these are personal computers, lipstick, tires, or the Sony Walkman I am listening to as I write. Asphalt, paint, artificial fabrics such as polyester, and various pharmaceuticals require oil to be manufactured. Our factories are run on oil, and steel is produced with this fossil fuel as well. Skyscrapers, along with most modern housing, could not be made without oil. Many things people would not even think of are products made with oil, including batteries, artificial hearts, hip replacements, and motion pictures. Oil is necessary for almost all the production of commodities and manufactured goods in the 21st century, but what oil is predominately used for is transportation fuel. Gasoline or some other oil refined product is used in our cars, trucks, boats, and airplanes. According to the author, without oil our economy and society would cease as we know it and there is no substitute for it.

To James Kunstler, almost all momentous events in the modern era and the supremacy of the West are based on having abundant and cheap oil. Even the world wars and their outcomes he attributes to oil. Before WWI, wars were typically quick, and involved relatively few casualties. Then came trench warfare where millions of combatants were killed, aided by trains, machine guns, artillery, and rapidly motorized militaries. Britain is described as having only 800 motor cars, and 15 motorcycles at the beginning of hostilities in 1914. At the end of the war, they had accumulated 60,000 trucks and over 50,000 cars and motorcycles. Winston Churchill had changed the fuel of the British navy from coal to oil just before the onset of war, and this gave them a tremendous advantage over the coal powered German fleet. Germany's only response was diesel fueled U-boats which only led America, with their super abundant access to oil, to enter the war. The author surmises Germany's lack of oil caused them to lose not only WWI, but WWII. He also believes WWII was fought for access to oil, and while I agree Japan attacked Indonesia and then Pearl Harbor when F.D.R. cut off their access to American oil, Germany's invasion was not precipitated by a quest for oil. Nazi Germany sought an ideological war against communism, and to expand its empire on European soil so it also could be a world power. The author writes about the invasion of S. Russia to secure oil fields, but this was only a secondary thought and not the motivation for war. Furthermore, what caused Germany's defeat was not a lack of oil, but the massive resources, both human and otherwise, that the U.S. brought to the battlefield, which were dismissed by German leaders. After the war, the U.S. did not become a superpower dominating global markets due to cheap and abundant oil, but because of a world that was brought to its knees. America was the only nation able to reap the rewards of victory.

Most of my days this week were spent reading The Long Emergency and note taking, but at about 7 p.m., I usually sought out some entertainment on TV. With only a few channels that come in, I did not have much to chose from. However, ESPN comes in clearest, and on Monday night I watched the N.E. Patriots play the Miami Dolphins. Coach Bill Bellichick and the N.E. offense minus Randy Moss is one of my favorites to root for. It was mostly Miami's mistakes and the Patriots' special teams that led to the root, but I was glad with the N.E. victory. I was also glad to hear the next day that Randy Moss was being traded to the Vikings. He can now give Brett Favre grief, although he is in desperate need of receivers.

The following night, I watched NOVA on PBS, as my evening excursion from reading. The NOVA special was about the initial plans of the U.S. military to have manned spy satellites. It was an interesting program of the developing space technology and competition with the Soviet Union. However, PBS came in poorly, and I had to watch it through much static. There are over a hundred spy satellites circling the earth, able to zoom in on a license plate from outer space, but I cannot get clear TV reception. All this technology, but just like the author of The Long Emergency, I feel it is precariously predicated. Society and technology have advanced in so many ways, but the quality has deteriorated. That, and the tremendous amount of rocket fuel used in the manned space race which was ultimately abandoned by both countries went through my mind as I watched the show.

According to James Kunstler, U.S. oil production peaked at 10 million barrels a day in 1970, and has been decreasing ever since. Now, America produces less than half that amount. In fact, new discoveries of oil would diminish after 1930 during the Great Depression when the glut of supply and absence of demand made oil 10 cents a barrel. Although the U.S. was acquiring more oil than ever before in the early 70s, America still had to import an additional 6 million barrels a day. In 1973, the OPEC oil embargo would not be just an inconvenience for the U.S., but a major body blow. The price of oil shot up almost 500% and caused massive supply disruptions. I was not born at the time, but I remember seeing taped TV news of long lines of cars at gas stations, fights, and the rationing of gasoline. Absolutely everything in the industrialized economy was either made or transported with petroleum products. Not only did the price at the pump jump, but prices throughout the economy. The stock market dropped 15% the first month and ultimately 45% from the pre-embargo high. There were layoffs, cuts in salaries, and enormous inflationary conditions which cut off lines of credit. America had entered an economic anomaly dubbed "stagflation," which stood for a stagnant economy and high inflation, that lasted many years. The effects are small compared to what could happen to the U.S. today.

The U.S. economy stalled until the mid-1980's during the Reagan administration. The author, however, denies Reagan or Margaret Thatcher's policies of free trade, deregulation, or lower taxes contributed to the recovery in America or Britain. He attributes it to a surge in the supply of cheap oil. When oil prices soared, there was a boom in exploration and drilling with improved technology, especially from deep water sites. The Soviet Union, desperate for cash to shore up its dysfunctional, decrepit, and bankrupt communist economy, also produced record amounts of oil. Saudis and other Middle Eastern states also broke ranks to reap high profits. These developments took place, furthermore, when the Alaskan pipeline and North Sea oil were bringing large amounts of new oil supplies onto markets. While I agree with the author that low energy prices helped, so did lower taxes and certain deregulation. Furthermore, although Reagan has become symbolic for less government, his administration spent massive amounts of money on national defense which stimulated the economy.

Bill Clinton was able to ride the wave of cheap oil, and a vibrant economy and with a fiscally conservative legislature turned U.S. debt into a surplus. He rode this exuberance until the Internet bubble burst at the end of his second term. Clinton did nothing to address America's oil dependence, but both Bush presidents would address the matter through war. When Iraq invaded Kuwait because they were caught stealing Iraqi oil through horizontal drilling, Operation Desert Storm pushed the Iraqi forces out. This made Kuwait, and indirectly Arabia, indebted to the U.S. -- and they increased production. The attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, gave the 2nd Bush ample excuse not only to invade Afghanistan, but Iraq as well. The Iraqi war was sold to the world to prevent their development of WMDs and after none were found, to liberate Iraq. However, the true goal of the U.S. was to establish a base in the Middle East to control radical Islam and oil. James Kunstler does not mention this, but there was a reason why the U.S. built the largest embassy in the world in Iraq. Although Obama may try to undo the policies of previous administrations, the plan was to stay in Iraq for a long period of time. The contracts to British Petroleum, Exxon Mobile, and Shell Oil to produce Iraqi oil fields also speak volumes. Most of the world's remaining oil reserves are in the Middle East, and while Barack Obama may want to crimp the U.S. economy with a carbon tax, the Bush administration sought to control foreign oil while the U.S. developed its own fuel sources.

On Wednesday, I did not get much reading done because I went to the prison's Health Care Unit. I was not let out of my cell until late, and not until I had Juan Luna, who is a cell house worker in F House, notify guards of my pass. Although I have been in Seg a few weeks, this was the first time while here that I spoke with the man convicted of the Palatine Brown's Chicken murders. I have been meaning to speak with him, but he does not work on my floor, and it was only by chance he happened to be walking by. Whenever Segregation inmates have movement, they are put in chains and handcuffs. It was no different for me earlier this week. I did not enjoy the restraints, but it was a nice warm day outside and I did not mind the walk. I spoke with the medical director who asked me if the cortisone injection helped. He authorized another one to be given to me. The best part about my trip was being able to talk with a kitchen worker. I told him I was starving in Seg, and asked him to "throw a dog a bone." Later that evening when dinner trays were passed out, I was given a diet bag which had about 20 little packs of peanut butter in them. I am very appreciative. I have lost over 10 pounds.

There was nothing on TV Wednesday evening, and I continued reading my book. The major theme of The Long Emergency is the depletion of oil, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. According to the author, worldwide discoveries of oil peaked in 1964 and has followed a firm trendline downward. This does not mean production peaked at that time. Production has increased, however, the amount of oil being consumed has risen exponentially due to America's increasing appetite, and also from emerging markets such as China and India. At the time this book was written, global consumption was about 30 billion barrels a day. According to geologists' estimates there is less than a trillion barrels of oil left, and this oil is the most difficult and expensive to reach. In 1916, the ratio of energy expended to the amount of energy obtained from drilling oil was 2 to 1. In 2004, it was 28 to 1. The day when Jed Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies accidentally discovered oil by shooting the ground with a rifle is over. Also, much of the oil remaining is of the lowest quality, and difficult to refine. The author makes the startling claim that even if we were able to extract every drop of oil left, the world will run out of oil in 37 years; a claim I believe is exaggerated but will happen in time.

Chapter 4 is entitled "Beyond Oil: Why Alternative Fuels Won't Rescue Us," and in it he dismisses other fossil fuels, one by one, and so called renewables. While I agree with his criticisms of solar, wind, biofuels and hydrogen, I disagree with his assessment of natural gas and coal. He claims natural gas reserves are being rapidly depleted in the U.S. and Canada, but the fact is North America has an abundance of the fuel. In fact, the U.S. has more natural gas than any other country in the world, and it could be used solely as an energy source for over 100 years. I must conclude that the author conducted his research before advancements in technology allowed U.S. drillers to produce natural gas trapped in shale rock. Natural gas is the most environmentally friendly fossil fuel and releases the least amount of pollutants or particle matter when burned or refined. I do not believe manmade carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to global warming, but natural gas releases less than half the amount of CO2 than oil. The best thing about natural gas though is it can give the U.S. energy independence without oppressing the economy with new cap and trade taxes and without the necessity of government subsidies. Drillers, however, must be careful not to contaminate ground water when breaking up shale rock.

Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel and causes more pollution in its burning than any other energy source. Burning coal releases heavy metals such as toxic mercury or other particulates into the air, poisoning groundwater, contributing to asthma, and also causing acid rain. However, coal is also very abundant and cheap. It is so cheap that extra expenses needed to develop and use clean coal technology make it well worth its use. Kunstler dimisses coal as an energy source because it is not as versatile as oil. Coal can and already does produce over a quarter of U.S. electricity, but it cannot be sent through pipelines and pumped into cars, trucks, and airplanes. This is true, but there is a way to make synthetic oil from coal. In fact, Nazi Germany used this technology to fuel its military conquest of Europe. A few years ago, I learned about a company that was converting coal to oil, but at the time only had contracts with the U.S. military. I told my family about this company because I thought it was an investment opportunity. Sooner or later, this oil will be used by the American consumer. Clean coal and conversion to oil will add to the expense of the energy, however, with oil prices over $50 a barrel, it is profitable. The U.S. can rely on natural gas and clean coal for hundreds of years and not give our current or potential future enemies a cent.

The author of The Long Emergency believes the best alternative energy source for the U.S. is nuclear. The energy potential from nuclear fission is enormous. One single atom of uranium produces 10 million times as much energy as burning a carbon atom, and has 20 million times more energy than oil. Two pounds of uranium, a quantity that could fit into a beer can, can supply all the electric power a family of four uses in a lifetime. This same amount of uranium only costs $30 on the market at the time the book was written. Nuclear energy could also make hydrogen fuel cells economical. However, James Kunstler believes the U.S. will not act soon enough on nuclear to prevent the collapse of society and government. Nuclear power plants require over ten years to be built, and they also require oil not only to build them, but to maintain them. The U.S. has not built a single nuclear power plant since the 1970s because of the public's lingering fear from 3 Mile Island, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster which immediately killed 31 people, and thereafter killed thousands. Twenty square miles in Russia are uninhabitable, and possibly for a hundred years. No one wants spent nuclear fuel in their state, and the proposed Yucca Mountain site has been abandoned. Spent nuclear fuel is presently spread out across America, sitting at its originating plants. The author does not mention this, but from my own research, I know nuclear power plants require massive federal financing to be built, and are overzealously regulated by the government. Private companies are unwilling or unable to put up the capital for building plants and they are not a profitable business. Thus, without government initiatives, increased nuclear power will not happen.

There is a chapter in the book entitled "Nature Bites Back," which I found was greatly exaggerated and alarmist. The part about global warming I thought was an irrational worry. The author initially says he does not take sides on the global warming debate, but from his writing, I believe he does think manmade CO2 emissions are causing temperatures to rise. This global warming will cause enormous problems for mankind, he states, which will cataclysmicly mix with the depletion of oil. Personsally, I believe that even if temperatures do rise, it could very well be a benefit, especially in colder North American and European countries. I also believe that it is impossible to predict or change, and trillions of dollars spent on CO2 prevention, sequesturing, or the oppression on the U.S. economy would be foolish and would be more wisely spent otherwise, even if true.

The author also writes about other problems to come in the 21st Century, including the evolution of viruses to create epidemics, the inability of modern science to keep up with these and bacteria increasingly immune to antibiotics. The increasing global population that is exposed to poor sanitation, animals, or environments never encroached upon were also mentioned. Kunstler goes on to explain how much global travel there is now and how the world is due for a supervirus worse than the Bubonic Plague or the 1918 Influenza that killed over 40 million people and infected 1/5th of the world. He also mentions bioweapons, which to me are more frightening than nuclear annihilation.

Although I did not appreciate the Chicken Little warnings about global warming, I did very much agree with his condemnation of free market globalism in Chapter 6, "Running on Fumes." He writes that free trade required the breakdown of all prior restraints: logistical, political, moral and cultural. It maximizes the material present at the expense of the future. It privatized the profits of business while socializing the costs. Free market globalism became the reigning orthodoxy of both political parties, and was sold to the public as a way to make everyone rich. However, it only managed to move U.S. manufacturing jobs and money overseas, leaving us with McDonalds, Walmarts, and a massive debt. Our communities, local economies, future generations, and the social-cultural fabric of society were sold out for some cheap Chinese goods. Huge international corporations have no loyalty to the U.S. and systematically destroyed our nation without government leadership and regulation. Most conservatives are adamant about free trade, but the first U.S. conservatives believed in tariffs and a government that protected, and fervently advocated American industry, jobs, and livelihoods. This neoconservativism and liberalized free trade will cause enormous hardship for the West, especially in America. American power and wealth will dissolve at a moment of crisis in The Long Emergency, when we need it most.

James Kunstler also writes of how globalism, and what he refers to as suburbia, will cause much more of a problem in the U.S. because of the country's dependency on cheap oil. He states that only from cheap oil have Americans been able to spread out across the nation. Homes are now built far away from friends, family, employment, energy sources, and markets. The U.S. relies more so than any other country on commuting in cars or trucks. When the price of fuel becomes enormous, suburbia will experience a tumultuous retraction. Our goods that are shipped, flown, or trucked from other countries or over great distances in the U.S., will become uneconomical. The good news is that free trade globalism will wither and die; the bad news is America is so dependent and invested in suburbia and long distance trade, the retraction will cause great social upheaval and possibly the breakup of the Union. Although travel may retract while transportation fuel is changed from oil to electric, synthetic oil, or otherwise, and trains become more important, I believe the author greatly exaggerates the problem.

Toward the end of the chapter "Running on Fumes," I was greatly impressed with Kunstler's insight into the mortgage fiasco and prediction of economic collapse from a real estate bubble. This book was written in 2004, however, the author goes into great detail how the government- backed mortgage corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were buying up huge amounts of housing debt. These were private institutions, but were backed by the government, and the government pressured them to buy up high risk mortgages in the subprime market. Liberals promoted the mortgage buying as an affirmative action and social policy. Moderates did not oppose it because they thought more home ownership would bring the marginalized poor segments of society into the mainstream. Home ownership could bring more responsibility and pacification to these people. Then there were the other big banks that wanted to cash in on this profitable venture. Homes were thought to only be able to go up in price, and if a person or business defaulted, they would just seize the property and the debt, and still profit. Mortgage debt was pooled together in bundles with good and bad debts, and then sold to various banks, and the more complicated the debt, the better. Banks also knew they could always unload debt on Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

There was a terrible disconnect between the lender and borrower. Local, small banks which have mostly been overtaken, knew who they lent to and weighed the risk. Big banks, however, did not know and did not care. At the time of the book's writing, the combined debt of just Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae was $3 trillion. When the house of cards began to fall, there was over $10 trillion in mortgage debt held by banks. James Kunstler predicted its collapse and surmised the economic wreckage would make the S & L fiasco of the 1980s look minuscule, and the investment in suburbia the greatest misallocation of resources in world history.

The Long Emergency is very critical of suburbia, the spending on the infrastructure of it, and all superlative consumer spending based on cheap oil and foreign goods which will all end this century and make such things obsolete. The author also mentions government policies that contributed to this squander of wealth, including the reduction of interest rates and devaluation of currency. I wonder what the author would think of the present Fed rate of 0% and the dollar's collapse from the printing of trillions, and the enormous debt accrued. I also wonder what his opinion is of the unsustainable social entitlements and other government spending made much worse by the Obama administration. In my opinion, the "emergency" is not from the depletion of fossil fuels, but the irresponsible spending spree and mismanagement of government. I do not see a cataclysmic scenario of events the author envisioned, but I do see the Decline of Western Civilization as Oswald Spengler, and more recently, as political pundit, Pat Buchanan, has written about.

Today I finished my reading and during the evening I watched the movie The Titanic with lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio. The Titanic was very symbolic of the doom that seems to face the West. Here was the most grand and powerful luxury liner in the world. The ship was lavish with ornamentation and decor. It had the best available technology, and was said to be unsinkable. Many of the people on board were filthy rich, decadent, and living fat off the wealth they inherited. They had arrogant egos and thought they, like the ship they were on, were immortal. I watched how violins were still being played as the ship was sinking. Clearly, the U.S. is also deluded about its fate. Like the Titanic, America may eventually find itself at the bottom of the ocean.