Monday, November 24, 2008

Kunstler's Suburbs vs. Jeff Vail's

Jeff Vail ( in his latest post proposes an interesting future for the suburbs that is very different from the bleak fate Jim Kunstler describes ( Vail mentions research by John Jeavons into sustainable small-scale agriculture, showing that only 4,000 square feet per person is needed. This assumes a vegetarian diet, but also requires no outside input of fertilizer etc., and is achieved by growing 60% high carbon produce such as corn in order to provide compost for the soil. Since the average size of the suburban lot is larger than a city lot (Vail mentions 1/4 acre), the suburbanites at least have the space to do this.

I think Vail has a good point, and also has made the correct observation in his last few posts that we're basically stuck with the suburbs and that those who live there will have to keep living there because they won't be able to sell their houses in order to move, and even if they could then the new occupant would replace them (note to reader, the assumption here is that gasoline will be scarce or expensive or both - I know that's not true right now, but remember a few months ago?) He also has argued that commuting costs can easily be negated by measures like car pooling.

So his argument interesting, but I still think that the suburban model for current society is a great inefficiency. What he proposes is taking this model and turning it into something more like the rural past, so that it becomes efficient again. But it is no longer the suburbs then. I know it's just semantics - and I think he has given a good solution to this problem.

The big question is can people who live in the suburbs accept this.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What Happens When the U.S. Defaults On Its Debt?

Okay, this is unthinkable, right? Unfortunately not. Europe 2020 , a website that forecasts political and other events and their impact is predicting that the U.S. will default this Summer (2009). This site has been warning about our current financial debacle for several years, and they seem to have called it right so far. An article in Money Week was also talking about the possibility of a U.S. default. A CNBC article shows that as we keep increasing our national debt by bailouts and other capital injections (in order to prevent financial collapse), at some point our credit rating will be lowered, which will lead to the default. Martin Hennecke, senior manager of private clients at Tyche is quoted:

"The U.S. might really have to look at a default on the bankruptcy reorganization of the present financial system" and the bankruptcy of the government is not out of the realm of possibility, Hennecke said.

The problem we face is this: we need to throw huge sums of money into our economy to keep it from collapsing, but we don't have the money, so we have to increase our debt. But increasing our debt will at some point cause the same kind of collapse, when our credit rating is lowered.

What happens to us when we default? I think at that point we will be on our own, i.e. limited to only the resources within our borders. That means very little oil. Think about the implications of that for a minute. All military activities abroad will have to stop, and the basic routine of all daily life will no longer work. The good part is that we are a vast nation still with much natural wealth, and we should be able to produce all our own food and shelter, but only if we totally redesign how we go about it. So farming must now be by manual labor rather than machines, using no chemicals for pest control or fertilizer (because all these things depend on oil). Food must be grown near where it is used. Jobs in our traditional economy will be totally useless and will disappear. They have no value since they are based on trade with the rest of the world, rather than on producing things that we need here. It seems that the only way this can happen in an orderly way is for government to create basically a command economy of some sort and assign people to roles in it. Maybe this can be done through incentive rather than directive, but we may not have time for that. And I know, China and the Soviet Union have proved that this doesn't work. So what is a better alternative?

Do you believe this can happen in the United States without massive social disorder and perhaps revolution? We better pray that it can.

What the Election Means

Last week the United States of America elected Barack Obama President by a clear margin. I voted for him and believe me I am very happy that he won. I was moved to tears by the historic implications of his acceptance speech in Grant Park, as was Jesse Jackson, and it sounded like Jim Lehrer either had a frog in his throat or maybe he too was overcome by the moment. John McCain was gracious in defeat - I believe this was the real John McCain finally free of the burden of running for president, now able to be himself.

As great as this is from a historic perspective, it does nothing to change the grim financial and social circumstances we are facing. It does offer some hope, however. First of all, it means that people are ready to try something different, and we also will have a president who ran on "change" (though the specifics were not defined). And we cannot discount the new goodwill we should have from the rest of the world, and the prospect of repairing some broken relationships.

People are ready to try something different, but how different? And even if they are ready for the kind of radical social change that will be required to survive (see my next post), will Barack Obama be bold enough to risk this kind of action? It is tragic in many ways that he has inherited a set of problems decades in the making that will most likely make him or any president look like a failure. I wish him well and hope for great things from him, we are going to need an inspiring leader in the next few years.