A consortium of energy companies known as PennEast has proposed building a 108 mile natural gas pipeline from Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, to Pennington, New Jersey, jeopardizing preserved land and Federally-listed endangered species including the bog turtle, the dwarf wedgemussel, and the Indiana bat. Along with 861 landowners of 1,094 properties, exactly 33 wetland areas and 60 bodies of water would be affected—including the sensitive Delaware River, under which the pipeline would pass. Though touted by PennEast as a way of connecting regional consumers with “clean affordable natural gas”, the PennEast pipeline is in fact a dangerous, environmentally senseless scheme whose sole purpose is short term profit.
PennEast is comprised of UGI Energy Services, Spectra Energy Partners, AGL Resources, South Jersey Industries, New Jersey Resources, and PSEG Power. Almost without exception, each company has a proven track record of environmental negligence and overall malfeasance.
First consider UGI. In February 2011, a natural gas main operated by the Valley Forge-based group exploded, leveling eight houses and claiming five lives. The 83-year-old main was made of cast iron, well known for its susceptibility to corrosion. While the group initially denied ignoring and improperly responding to warning signs that could have prevented the blast, they eventually agreed to pay a $386,000 fine to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and to accelerate replacement of cast iron mains. Earlier, in May of 2004, UGI was sued by AGL Resources for some of the $55 million required to remove natural gas manufacturing byproducts—coal tars and other residues—from a site in Savannah, Georgia which UGI had once owned. Later, they were again sued by AGL over improper cleanup at a site in Augustine, Florida. New York-based Consolidated Edison also sued UGI for contributions to cleanup costs to a plant in Westchester County, New York. And the city of Bangor, Maine, also sued UGI to recover $50 million the city had spent to clean up tar deposits at a site along the Penobscot River.
Next we have Spectra Energy Partners. From July 2008 to August 2012, the Texas-based corporation delayed critical repairs to a swath of its Pennsylvania pipelines, resulting in a $95,000 fine by the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Later, on December 31st, 2013, a Spectra-Energy operated pressure valve in Searsmont, Maine failed, releasing approximately 70,000 cubic feet of natural gas, and sickening nearby residents.
South Jersey Industries’ record is similarly questionable. The group is currently seeking to build a 22-mile pipeline through the New Jersey Pinelands, a million-plus acre preserve of pristine natural land and forest. Though the proposed route clearly violates the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan, and could easily be rerouted along the Garden State Parkway right of way, SJI refuses to consider changes. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that at the time of the pipeline’s proposal, SJI Chief Operating Officer Michael J. Renna’s wife worked for Governor Chris Christie, a fierce proponent of the Pineland pipeline’s construction. You may remember COO’s Renna’s wife, Christina Renna, as one of the aids who reported to Bridget Kelly, the Christie cabinet member who was forced to resign in the wake of the ‘Bridgegate Scandal’, following the revelation of her “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” email.
And finally we have PSEG Power. In November 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the State of New Jersey fined the company for their failure to comply with a 2002 Clean Air Act regulation requiring the installation of pollution controls at two of its New Jersey-based coal-fired power plants. PSEG was earlier sued by Morris Energy Group for “violat[ing] their MBR authority with the assistance of PSEG Power by exercising vertical market power by erecting barriers to entry in the PJM market.” PSEG was also sued by Rate Counsel, a division of the Public Advocate’s office, for over-collecting a market transition charge, resulting in the company’s having to pay $122 million to electric rate payers over the following two years.
Such are the constituents of PennEast. Are these paragons of environmental stewardship and financial probity to be trusted with our forests, farmlands, backyards, and communities?
The natural gas industry has been wildly successful in its efforts to portray itself as the cleaner, safer, alternative to coal and oil. Indeed, natural gas is now widely perceived as a ‘transition fuel’: a stepping stone from fossil fuels to renewables. But while natural gas emits about 50% less CO2 when burned, its total lifecycle emissions—extraction, distribution, et cetera—are only marginally better than coal’s. If the gas is extracted via hydraulic fracturing, (as much of PennEast’s cargo would be), the greenhouse gas footprint can be nearly 20% greater than coal’s, with as much as 7.9 percent of gas lost to flow-back, flaring, or seepage from loose pipe fittings.
Natural gas is also incredibly unsafe. Every nine days in the U.S., someone is injured by a natural gas leak or explosion. Since 1986, pipeline accidents have killed more than 500 people, injured over 4,000, and cost nearly seven billion dollars in property damage. Just a few weeks ago here in Pennsylvania, a dozen Washington County homes were evacuated due to an explosion at a natural gas metering station. Pipelines fail for many reasons: deterioration due to corrosion, shoddy welding, errant excavation operations, landslides, natural disasters, and sinkholes. No amount of preparation can ensure that the PennEast line won’t succumb to one or more of the above.
To mask these grim and unpalatable truths, PennEast focuses almost solely on the pipeline’s economic benefits. According to the consortium’s website, it would create 2,000 jobs, would heat 4.7 million homes, and would delivery 1 billion cubic feet of ‘affordable local natural gas’. But these jobs would be temporary, lasting only until the pipeline’s completion; and the gas would likely not be used to heat homes, but sold on the lucrative global export market. The notion that a 36 inch wide conduit filled with a highly volatile, toxic, and deadly substance—a substance which could explode at any moment—is somehow a boon to the communities through which it passes is absurd on its face.
Neither Pennsylvania nor New Jersey needs another natural gas pipeline. The $1 billion PennEast plans to spend would be better invested on renewables. Groups like Concerned Citizens against the Pipeline are committed to thwarting PennEast, educating landowners on their rights, and raising awareness about the realities of the natural gas industry. The rape and plunder of the earth, the decimation of natural habitat, and the senseless quest for short-term profit must be stopped. Construction on the PennEast line is slated to begin in 2017: Plenty of time to stop it in its tracks.
All over the country, people are talking about Solar Roadways, the futuristic electricity generation/smart highway technology developed by husband and wife team Scott and Julie Brusaw. The startup’s crowdfunding campaign has almost doubled its $1million goal needed to transition from development to production stage. Their promotional video, “Solar FREAKIN’ Roadways!” has garnered over 7.5 million hits, while their Facebook page has tallied over 45,000 likes. Musician Julian Lennon, actor Mark Ruffalo, and writer Margaret Atwood are all singing the company’s praises.
According to its website, Solar Roadway’s goal is to “…cover all concrete and asphalt surfaces that are exposed to the sun with Solar Road Panels.” Not only would these panels “…produce over three times the electricity that we currently use in the United States,” thereby leading “…to the end of our dependency on fossil fuels of any kind,” they would also include embedded LEDs which would warn drivers about potential dangers ahead, protect wildlife, and promote safer nighttime driving. What’s more, service tunnels flanking the roadways would provide housing for an underground electric distribution system. And embedded heating elements would prevent ice- and snow-buildup, eradicating the need for costly plowing and salting. All of which sounds quite promising indeed—at least on the surface.
Pieces in the Huffington Post, the Singularity Hub, and Jalopnick help dig beneath that surface, exposing some glaring problems. Chief of which: cost. To replace every road in the nation would run $56 trillion, more than triple 2014’s national GDP. The Brusaws maintain that the roads would pay for themselves after 22 years, but persuading cash-strapped and overextended state and federal governments to foot the bill might prove challenging, to say the least.
Another problem is storage. Even if the Brusaw’s estimated potential output of 14.95 billion Kilowatts turns out to be accurate, this power would be available only intermittently. In wintertime and on cloudy days output would plummet; at night it would cease altogether. A far more effective and cost-efficient way of producing comparable wattage would be to construct multiple solar-thermal systems (like Spain’s PS10 plant) which concentrate heat in a medium such as water or molten salt which can then be released during times of low output.
Embedded LEDs raise additional concerns. Electrical engineer David Forbes writes, “A big thing is made of having LEDs embedded in the roadway to provide changeable signage. This is a wonderful idea. Until a teenage hacker gets into the system and makes opposing traffic lanes merge into each other for kicks.”
There are also durability, maintenance, and drivability concerns. How will the glass panels be kept clean? How will they respond to chemical spills or fires? No one really knows.
In fairness, the Brusaw’s never claimed that Solar Roadways was ready for primetime. “We’re aware that this won’t happen overnight. We’ll need to start off small: Driveways, bike paths, patios, sidewalks, parking lots, playgrounds, etc. This is where we’ll learn our lessons and perfect our system.”
But even if they do succeed, there are other, more fundamental concerns. Such as whether we as stewards of the Earth ought to be investing time and energy refining a system which, at bottom, would only perpetuate the worst aspects of consumerism. After all, the interstate road system is nothing if not the very conduit by which plundered resources are siphoned from source to destination. Roads and highways serve as the veins and arteries of the consumerist body, enabling the conversion of raw materials into durable goods, and those goods into toxic waste. Indeed, if arresting climate change were truly our goal, we need only sever those veins and arteries.
Much of Solar Roadways appeal arises from its tacit promise that consumers needn’t make significant sacrifices. The problem, the logic goes, isn’t with individualized motoring itself, but the means by which that motoring is carried out. The promise of Solar Roadways allows us to believe that our children and grandchildren will grow up to be happy motorists, that our ravenously consumerist way of life will continue ad infinitum. The same is true with the ‘green’ movement more generally. The change offered by the mainstream is never substantive or fundamental; it is always cosmetic. Blame is always pinned on insufficiently efficient technology. If we could just get past this clumsy stage in our technological evolution, they argue, everything would be fine. And yet, as history has evinced, every new technological breakthrough elicits ever more complex obstacles to be surmounted, requiring ever more technological innovation—i.e. ecosystem destruction—and so on until the Earth’s resources are exhausted.
Imagine a crowdfunding campaign centered around a public transportation project. Or walkable towns. Imagine a Youtube video toting the benefits of a low-energy, anti-consumerist, communal-based lifestyle. A video promoting library computers in favor of the wasteful personal computer. Imagine a video that shows ingenious ways of repurposing discarded bicycles. A video that promotes the taboo notion that the solution to the world’s problem lies not in covering every roadway with expensive solar panels, but in simply using less. Would such a video go viral? Would its crowdfunding campaign attract the attention of famous writers and musicians? If a Facebook friend shared a video urging you to travel less, to wash your clothes less, to shower less, to work less, to discard less, to use less—would you ‘like’ it? If the video suggested that the way to save the world is to stop murdering it, would you donate $5 to its implementation?
Make no mistake about it: Solar Roadways offers nothing less than the promise of consumerism’s continuation. The illusion that we need not fundamentally rework our lifestyles is a powerful one. But the more we procrastinate in admitting to ourselves the truth of our unsustainable ways, the more we persist in hanging our hopes on chimerical inventions and myopic innovations, the more sudden and spectacular will be the collapse that returns us to our rightful place within the ecosystem.
The US is on the verge of a water crisis. In the coming decades, polluted rivers, droughts, aquifer depletion, and an aging water infrastructure will combine to create a condition of permanent water insecurity. For over a century we’ve been playing fast and loose with our very lifeblood, and Mother Nature is about to put her foot down.
Rivers and Streams in Lousy Shape.
A March 2013 EPA report concluded that over half our rivers and streams are incapable of supporting healthy aquatic life. Fifty-five percent were classified as “poor”, twenty-three as “fair”, and only twenty-one as “good”. Nitrogen and phosphorous runoff, and land-clearing and waterway-development are the leading culprits. Also cited are abnormally high mercury and bacteria levels.
Of the rivers that were rated “poor”, the majority are located in the East and South. The Ohio, the Mississippi, the New River, the Savannah, and the Delaware make up the top five most polluted water ways, with toxic discharges registering from 6 million to 32 million pounds. Not surprisingly, the top 20 industrial polluters also happen to be located in the East and South, where they enjoy immunity from their misdeeds thanks to loopholes in the Clean Water Act, the regulatory scope of which does not cover headwaters and smaller streams where most dumping takes place.
Though the brutal 2012 Texas drought captured the media spotlight, in fact much of the Southwest has under drought for the last decade. And according to a 2013 NASA report on climate change, such droughts are likely to increase. Warmer temperatures will bring smaller snow-packs and earlier spring runoff. Rain, when it does come, will do so torrentially, doing little good for watersheds and the people who depend on them.
Hardest hit will be Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California, much of whose water comes from the drought-stricken Lake Powell and Lake Mead reservoirs. With a catchment area of 108,335 square miles, Lake Powell is the nation’s second largest reservoir, yet recent years have seen its levels plummet. The larger Lake Mead has also fallen over 100 feet to its current level of 1,106 feet. If Lake Powell falls below 3,575 feet and/or Lake Mead below 1,075, a federal water shortage would be declared, triggering cuts to Nevada and Arizona. If Lake Mead drops under 1,050 feet, the Hoover Dam’s hydroelectric capabilities would be compromised, as would the intake straws that provide Las Vegas with 85% of its water. A third, lower, intake straw is in the works, but the $817 million project is beset with delays, and offers no guarantee the levels won’t fall even lower.
While Mead and Powell have seen similar periods of scarcity (as well as abundance), the overall trend has been toward the latter. A sustained, climate change-induced drought would have devastating impacts on the economy, sparking an exodus to the wetter, more populous, coastal regions.
Rusted Pipes and Busted Spigots.
But even if our rivers and reservoirs weren’t so bad off, we still have an aging water infrastructure to contend with. In its annual report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave this infrastructure an appalling ‘D’. Built across three general eras—the late 1800s, pre-WWII, and post-WWII—the massive system of fresh- and waste-water pipes we take for granted is now “nearing the end of its useful life.” Replacing it would cost approximately one trillion dollars, the American Water Works Association concludes.
Yet of President Obama’s $787 billion American Recovery Reinvestment Act, less than 18 billion was allocated to water and sewage repair—a veritable drop in the bucket. Given the current federal aversion to national-scale public works projects, as well as increased bankruptcy of municipalities and cities, we’ll likely soon see the emergence of water ‘dead zones’, areas where breakages and ruptures go unrepaired. This will lead to disease and infighting, and overall diminished quality of life.
The Sound of Slurping Straws.
Ironically, as pollution, drought, and deteriorating infrastructure create a situation of permanent scarcity, demand will likely soar. Longer, more intense heat-waves will lead to increased evaporation rates for irrigation. Hotter weather also means more air conditioning, and more air conditioning means more electricity, and that means more water siphoned from streams to spin turbines. Generating electricity, believe it or not, rivals farming for water usage. Indeed, more water is used to create the electricity to run our computers, light our rooms, and run our appliances, than to wash our dishes, take showers, flush toilets, and water our lawns.
Meanwhile, the Ogallala fossil aquifer, the enormous shallow water aquifer located beneath the Great Plains, is being drained at a rate of approximately 800 gallons per minute. Providing around 30% of the groundwater used for irrigation in the US, as well as drinking water for some 2.3 million people, the Ogallala is the beating heart of the Midwest. Without it, large swaths of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas would be incapable of sustaining any kind of agriculture whatsoever, to say nothing of the families and communities dependant on them.
In the face of denial.
Coming to grips with this crisis is no easy feat. Water is so commonplace, so cheap, so safe, most of us don’t give it a second thought. Our sinks, bathtubs, and washing machines just are. It is simply inconceivable that in the not-so-distant future, a large swath of the population will no longer be able to conjure potable water simply by turning faucet. That they will be forced to drill their own wells, or schlep buckets from the neighborhood stream, or take baths in the local lake. That they be pitted against their fellows just to quench their thirst, that the water that was once so clean and pure now makes them sick.
And yet, that’s exactly what the data predict.
Less water, less security; more competition, more disease.
The writing’s on the wall. The wasteful, top-down approach of water management is on the outs. The new, bottom-up approach, with communities banding together to sustainably manage their own water needs, is the future.
It’s a funny thing how liberals love to blast the 1%, yet reserve a special place in their collective bosom for Mr. 1% himself, Bill Gates Jr.. At $74 billion and counting, the former Microsoft magnate is the richest person in the world. His Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, known for its commitment to global health, oversees an endowment of $36.2 billion. No single person wields more influence over the fate of the 99%, yet rarely is this influence called into question.
To be fair, Gates has contributed much to society. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is second only to the United Nations World Health Organization in terms of monies spent on global health initiatives. Their annual $800 million in donations have helped reduce malaria by 50% in countries where the disease is endemic, just to cite one example. The foundation is also a major source of scholarships and grants, as well as resources for the poor and underprivileged. Plus let’s not forget Microsoft Corporation, which put a PC in nearly every household, affording skeptics such as myself the ability to easily write and publish scathing critiques about its creator. Yes, Bill Gates has been the source of much good, as even the most jaded cynic has to admit.
But he’s also been the source of considerable ill.
For starters, consider the Microsoft Antitrust scandal of the 90s. Both the US Department of Justice and the European Commission accused the company of engaging in anti-competitive strategies, including ‘refusal to deal’ (restricting supply of goods), and ‘tying’ (selling something unrelated as a mandatory addition). Basically what Gates did was to bundle the Internet Explorer web browser with his Windows operating system, limiting outside competition from companies like Netscape Navigator or Opera. Though he was largely evasive and uncooperative in the trial, internal emails revealed his desire to “cut off Netscape’s air supply by giving away a clone of Netscape’s flagship product for free.” Microsoft was ordered to share its application programming interfaces with third party companies, and was fined $780 million by the European Commission.
Going back to the mid-Eighties, we have the ‘Permatemp’ debacle, in which 10,000 temporary employees sued Microsoft for denying them benefits and basic labor rights. The plaintiffs had been performing identical work as full-timers, sometimes for years, without the health care, labor rights, or stock option plans enjoyed by the latter. Microsoft eventually settled for $97 million, then began sourcing temporary labor from agencies in order to immure themselves from future litigation. Of their 60,000 American workers, anywhere between 5 and 6 thousand are benefit-less ‘temps’. An interesting practice, given the company’s profitability.
Cracks in the Foundation
Even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation isn’t without blemish. As a brilliant January 2007 LA Times piece reveals, of the B&MGF’s assets, $8.7 billion (41 percent) run counter to its stated goals of global health. In the Nigerian city of Ebocha for instance, natural gas-flaring from Italian oil giant Eni, in which the Gates Foundation has major holdings, has given rise to an epidemic of bronchitis, asthma, and blurred vision. Eni isn’t the only oil company the foundation invests in: Shell, Exxon, Chevron, and Total all benefit from Gates’ largess, as do some of the worst US polluters: Concophillips, Dow Jones, and Tyco. All told, the foundation has over $423 million invested in petroleum corporations.
The foundation’s Global Fund to Fight AIDS is yet another source of contradictory motives. While making tremendous strides prolonging the lives of those suffering from AIDS, the organization’s benefactors are limited to an elite few. Indeed, the prohibitively expensive costs of the antiretroviral drug Kaletra—$2,200 a year in Guatemala; $8,000 in the USA; and $500 in Nigeria—has lead one critic to call the treatment a form of ‘pharmaceutical apartheid’. Worse, Gates’ fixation on HIV has skewed the African health care system against more common killers such as diarrhea, asphyxia, and sepsis. Lured by higher-paying HIV-specific jobs, nurses and doctors have abandoned practices dealing with basic care, leaving such tasks to inexperienced lay people.
Your Little Kids’ Big Brother.
The Foundation has also come under scrutiny for its ties with Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Managed by Gates’ InBloom inc, Wireless Generation is creating a national database of student test scores gleaned from Common Core, a federal program which charts ‘college readiness’. In addition to making these ratings available to data-analyzing firms, educational software designers, and other third-party vendors, the database also gives access to students’ personal information—race, economic background, discipline records, and addresses.
InBloom currently contracts with nine states, each of which partners with the Shared Learning Collaborative, a pilot program set up by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) to help implement Common Core standards. The CCSSO, in turn, collaborates with Microsoft, Apple, Wireless, and IBM, as well as the very publishing houses—McGraw-Hill, Scholastic, and Pearson—who design the standardized tests that produce data for inBloom and Wireless. The heads of America’s state school systems (the very same people who empanel the CCSSO, coincidentally) then implement policy based on the corporations’ recommendations for the data that their own tests have facilitated. It’s like one big capitalist circle jerk.
A Few Bad Seeds
The foundation is also the proud owner of 500,000 shares ($23 million) of Monsanto stock. Monsanto is probably best known for its controversial GMOs, its Gene Use Restriction Technology, and its penchant for suing small farmers found to be growing patented Round-Up Ready products that had blown in from neighboring farms and accidentally germinated in their fields. Lesser known, however, is Monsanto’s Argentine slave rings, where workers were forced to labor 14 plus hours a day without pay; or Monsanto’s monopolistic grip over the Indian seed market, which has given rise to a spate of suicides by farmers seeking to escape chronic indebtedness and bankruptcy. Gates insists that GMOs are key to ending world hunger, but the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development, a group of 900 scientists and researchers who studied the issue of world hunger, disagree, citing that GMO crops do not produce increased yields over the long run.
No Man Is an Island.
Branding Bill Gates as evil, or tyrannical, or the author of a grand global conspiracy is easy to do, but is reductive and unfair. At bottom, Gates is a very clever, very competitive guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time, made a ton of dough, struggled with the responsibility of all that dough, then gave a bunch to charity. For let us not forget: Gates doesn’t have to donate a single red cent to fight AIDS, Polio, Malaria, or any other disease; he obviously does it because he’s compelled to. Even a cursory glance at his charitable track-record gives you the sense that he genuinely cares about people. Unfortunately, Gates’ genuineness is not the problem.
There is within the Gates Foundation a firewall that prevents the investment side, the Bill and Melinda Gates Trust, from interfering with the goals of the charitable side. The goals of the trust are to generate as much income for the endowment as possible; the goals of the charity are to find recipients for that endowment. The recipients are selected by ‘the interests and passions of the Gates family.’
And that‘s the problem. That a tiny elite, headed by a single, white, Anglo-Saxon male, decides how the endowment is funded, and how it is spent. Not a government, not a society: good old Billy and his kinfolk. Because even someone who scored 1590 on his SATs cannot be counted on to always act in the interest of the common weal. Eventually his prejudices and presuppositions would get the best of him, the same way they get the best of us, whenever our goals and ambitions, however lofty, go unchecked.
Bill Gates’ compassion and empathy would be far better served by letting communities, not organizations, decide how best to spend charitable donations. By funding relocalization movements, organic farming initiatives, sustainability education, and civic awareness-building. By refusing to invest in industries that harm the environment and the people dependent on them. By giving back to the however many thousand Microsoft workers on whose backs Gates’ fortune was founded. By ensuring that never again can a single man accrue so much wealth as to create the kind of inequality that causes widespread hunger, disease, and poor health in the first place.
With all the recent talk of the “economic recovery”, you might wonder why your own economic situation feels less than, well, recovered. Conservative and liberal pundits alike love to tout the 7.3% “unemployment rate”, the surging Dow Jones, and the buoyant housing market; but for most working-class Americans, it almost seems as though things are getting worse.
Which is probably because they are.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of governmental officials and the incredible complacency of “journalists”, the true—and alarming—state of our economy is being kept buried beneath a mirage of sanguine-sounding statistics.
Take, for instance, the so-called “unemployment rate”. By now nearly everyone knows that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates unemployment by tallying unemployment claims: once your benefits are exhausted, you’re considered employed, whether or not you happen to be living under an overpass in a cardboard box. Even the more accurate U6 measure, which includes short-term unemployment and persons “employed part-time for economic reasons”, doesn’t really tell the whole story. Most independent analysts put unemployment anywhere between 14 and 22 percent. Those aren’t post-recessionary numbers; they’re depression-level.
But what about the stock market? The Dow Jones, Nasdaq, and Standard and Poor indexes all set record highs on July 23rd—15,567; 3,600; and 1,695 respectively. How bad can things be?
Depends whom you ask.
If you’re among the 10% of Americans who own 80 percent of stock wealth, well, then, I guess things are going just fine. If you’re one of the 90% whose stocks are tied up in 401Ks: not so much.
In the past, bull markets were a natural outgrowth of strong economic fundamentals—you get a pay-raise, you buy some stocks from Corporation X, Corporation X opens a new plant, more jobs are created, and so on. In today’s world, however, the opposite is true: the more poverty and debt, the higher the inflation and unemployment, the sweeter the closing bell averages. This is dues to low interest rates and the Federal Reserve’s infamous Quantitative Easing program, which through suppressing yields in the sovereign bond market, forces investors into the stock market.
In other words, the Fed is printing tons of money, and all this money is ‘inflating’ the stock market, creating the illusion of wealth. Not exactly the picture of economic health.
The housing “recovery” has been similarly contrived. Typically, home prices rise as a function of expanding employment and increasing population. In the “post”-Great Recession universe, however, real estate inflation is being driven by deep-pocketed Wall Street investment firms who’ve been snatching up houses en mass, and turning them into rentals. Since 2010, outfits like Blackstone and Colony Capital make up 20-20% of new housing purchases. In April alone, 68 percent of damaged home sales went to new investors.
Banks are also contributing to the artificial recovery. By keeping as much as 90 percent of repossessed homes off the market, they’ve succeeded in sustaining near-record prices. If all the houses in what’s known as the ‘shadow REO market’ were suddenly made available for purchase, prices would tank. That’d be good news for the millions of Americans who’ve been priced out of the market, but terrible news for the millions looking to sell.
The truth is, for the majority of Americans, the economy is in very sad shape indeed.
Consider the following:
- The Home ownership rate in the US is at its lowest rate in 18 years.
- 76 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
- The US economy lost 240,000 full-time jobs in June of 2013.
- The largest employer in the US is Wal-Mart; the second largest is the temp agency Kelly Services.
- 40 percent of all workers in the US make less than $20,000 a year.
- 60 percent of the jobs lost during the recession were mid-wage jobs, but 58 percent of the jobs created since then have been low wage jobs.
- One in four Americans has a job that pays $10 an hour or less.
- Since 2001, the US has lost more than 56,000 manufacturing facilities.
- The average number of hours worked per employed person per year has fallen by about 100 since the year 2000.
- 20.2 million Americans spend more than half their incomes on housing.
- Approximately 46.2 million Americans are living in poverty.
When was the last time you heard a politician or “journalist” mention any of this? If Obama actually leveled with the American public, there’d be riots:
My fellow Americans, as most of you know, life in America is, to say the least, bleak. Thanks to the policies of my administration and the hard work of lobbyists and self-serving Congressmen and -women, our economy is on the brink of collapse. While the last three decade’s attack on regulation has worked wonders for the richest 10%, it’s been sheer murder on the bottom 90%, so much so that 22% of American children now live in poverty. Your future is one of increased insecurity, privation, and broken dreams. As both energy depletion and the plundering of the middle class continue unabated, you can look forward to the complete collapse of the dollar, lawlessness, violence, and mass hysteria. May God bless you, and God bless the United States.
This is why politicians lie: If they actually confessed just how perilously perched the economy is, they’d be out of a job.
Sort of like the rest of us.
Ask your average American whether he/she thinks the economic imbroglio currently ravaging Greece, Spain, and Cyprus could ever strike here, in the homeland, and the answer is likely to be resounding no. Hyperinflation, widespread famine, social unrest—these are things that happen in other countries; not ours. After all, we are the United States of America, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. Bad things happen on occasion, but the Superiority of our Democracy, forged as it were by our Glorious and Honorable Founding Fathers, precludes anything truly nasty from happening.
What if, though, such thinking is merely reactionary?
What if, as is increasingly being reported by both the right and left, these United States are every bit as vulnerable to economic collapse?
What if our country is bankrupt, and we’re not ready to admit it?
Turns out there are a whole host of reasons why denial might win the day, despite glaring realities.
First of which being the fact that most of us have never experienced full-scale Greece-style economic meltdown. Unless you’re one of the dwindling octo- and nonagenarians who’ve weathered the Great Depression, it’s just not within your realm of possibilities. And even the Great Depressioners can’t really relate: there’s was a crisis of deflation; ours—at least where the middle and lower classes are concerned—is one of inflation.
What’s happening right now—the beginnings of permanent energy scarcity—is something new under the sun. Things that are new under the sun are hard to anticipate.
Exacerbating this is the media’s ever-intensifying obsession with scandal, sex, and lies—what in a more innocent age was called yellow journalism. Who among us hasn’t heard of Benghazi debacle, Anthony Weiner’s wiener, or the Royal Birth? Meanwhile, homeownership has slipped to its lowest level in 18 years, radioactive tritium from the crippled Fukushima power plant flows freely into the Pacific Ocean, and the NSA is revealed to have violated privacy rules over 2700 times from April 2011 to March 2012. Bereft of a conscientious media, the public has no means of measuring its collective health, no inciting incident against which to stoke its indignation. People go blithely about their daily business, completely ignorant of the rot which every day penetrates deeper into the foundation of their charmed American lives.
In his excellent book, Collapse, Jared Diamond unearths yet another reason for mass denial, something called, “Creeping Normalcy”.
“If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else is deteriorating only slowly, it’s difficult to recognize that each successive year is on the average slightly worse than the year before, so one’s baseline standard for what constitutes “normalcy” shifts gradually and imperceptibly.”
Normal becomes $3.75 for gas. Or $900 for a one-bed room apartment. Or $35,000 in student debt. Or $7.75 an hour at Starbucks. Normal becomes whatever set of backwater conditions happens to prevail at any given moment.
Even if the public suddenly awoke to the reality of our gutted, foundationless, oil-addicted economy, there’s no guarantee they’d act. Man, after all, requires a certain amount of hope, hope that any realistic look at our future instantly dispels. The hard truth is this: We are officially on the sad side of the Industrial Revolution’s gleaming bell curve. The easy oil is gone, the top 1% have consolidated their control over the government, poverty is exploding, debt is mushrooming, and Washington, through the NSA and DHS, is quietly preparing for massive social upheaval. A system dependent upon endless consumerism cannot end well; it can only end catastrophically. Which your average American—your faithful correspondent included—doesn’t really want to have to come to grips with.
And so we pretend that everything’s roses; we assure ourselves our homeland is immune; we cower behind the myth of exceptionalism, the delusion of jingoism, the folly of invincibility.
As every day brings us that much closer to our national karmic bill coming due.
Your country is headed for a violent correction. Those of you lucky enough to have endured one of my Peak Oil rants have probably heard me say this dozens of times over. It may sound crazy or impossible, but consider the following:
- Modern economies are entirely depended on fossil fuels.
- Fossil fuels are the cornerstone of wealth-creation.
- Fossil fuels are in decline.
- No combination of renewables—wind, solar, hydro—can make up this shortfall.
- Modern economies need ever-increasing inputs of fossil fuel to service ever-increasing debt loads.
- Eventually, diminishing fossil fuel inputs fail to keep pace with debt-loads, and the currency, and with it the society, collapses.
These are not exactly rosy proclamations here, so you can see why I’ve been hesitant to stake my reputation on them. In light of recent political and economic events, however, I’ve come to see I have a moral duty to share my fears with as many of you as possible. And so I’m doing what every thirty-something does whenever he/she wants to change the world: I’m starting a blog.
My hope with this blog is threefold. First, to shine a light on unreported, misreported, and underreported news-stories. Second, to show how these stories make sense within the larger framework of resource depletion. And third, to demonstrate how corroboration between corporations and government is setting the stage for full-scale societal meltdown. Topics will include, ‘The Truth Behind the Great Recession’, ‘Energy Depletion: How and Why’, ‘The Rise of the Surveillance State’, ‘The Myth of ‘Green’ Energy’, ‘How Currencies are Manipulated’, and more. I’ll also be offering glimpses of what our world might look like five, ten, twenty years down the line, as well as recommending commonsense steps to increase your chance of survival in the coming decades of scarcity and strife.
Almost everyone I talk to these days—conservatives, liberals, whomever—sense something deeply wrong with the current order of things. Our country’s debt-to-GDP ratio, the amount we owe versus the amount we earn, is a staggering 104%. Nations the world over are posting similar ratios. An entire country, Greece, went bankrupt and had to be ‘bailed out’; Portugal and Italy aren’t far behind. Detroit, once one of the mightiest economic engines on the face of the Earth, just declared bankruptcy. Corporations are posting record profits while Chicago shutters 50 public schools and Philadelphia closes 23. The 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined. One in six US citizens is on food stamps. And the list goes on.
Take a look around you. Nearly everything you see exists because of cheap oil. Your computer, your car, your Iphone, your clothing, your house, your food. Having cheap fossil fuels at your service is like having hundreds of slaves at your beck and call. Doing your dishes, whisking you here and there, bringing the world’s news to your fingertips. And while it’s made our lives easier and more fulfilling, it was only ever a temporary arrangement, one whose end seems perilously near.
Since 2005, global oil production has been more or less flat at 74 million barrels per day. Across that same span, we’ve seen the rapid industrialization of India and China, and the addition of another 700 million energy-consuming souls to our already-crowded planet. Those record levels of government borrowing are the first sign economies aren’t getting the oil they need. Like a junkie willing to do anything to get another fix, politicians are borrowing staggering sums from the future to avoid the pain of withdrawal. Another sign is wage stagnation, the failure of wages to keep pace with inflation. Unwilling to absorb energy’s higher costs themselves, CEOs have frozen wages, slashed hours, and trimmed benefits, producing record profits even as people like you and me struggle to get by.
If this were only happening in the US, you could argue that it’s purely economic, that with the right combination of monetary policy and corporate regulation, you could inflate or deflate your way out of it. But these same symptoms are ravaging nearly every developed nation in the world—at the same time.
And what is it that all developed nations have in common?
Addiction to cheap fossil fuel.
For now, there remain enough solvent countries to bail out the insolvent ones. But that is quickly changing. Eventually, the metastasis of debt will have worked its way so deeply into the global economic tissue, that credit creation will cease completely, and the Great Big Capitalistic Machinery will grind to a halt.
Whether that’s a month, a year, or a decade down the road, I don’t know.
All I know is that when it does come, it won’t be pretty.