Saturday, March 28, 2009

 

Disneyland Hands out Pink Slips

Apparently Disneyland is cutting hundreds of jobs at its parks in the US. Well, lots of big companies are cutting jobs, so why write a post about this one? It’s because this is one of those indicators, like cellphones, that tell us when the situation is getting really desperate. Disneyland is an icon, an establishment that stands for everything which is all-American. It reminds us of things like those happy-go-lucky, halcyon days when suburbia was new and so full of promise.

I wish the dismissed workers the best, but if this is truly a reliable indicator, the general economic outlook is very bad. Things like visits to Disneyland and cellphones are valued highly by many people even though they are non-essentials, so their abandonment indicates that John and Jane Doe are cutting to the bare bone.

 

Dangerous Lack of Investment in Oil

I’ve written a number of posts about this matter, and here is no less an authority than Matt Simmons issuing a stark warning that the current level of insufficient investment in oilfield development is going to cause a price spike in the near future. Last year when oil spiked, the world economy was still hot. Now it’s tottering dangerously. I leave the rest to your imagination.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

 

Low Energy Density of Renewables

In order to generate appreciable amounts of power, renewable-energy installations must cover vast expanses of land. Those expanses are so large that conservationists are trying to limit development of land to keep it from being covered with mirrors and solar panels.

Here is another example which shows the vast amount of land that must be devoted to renewable energy production. Wind farms, solar installations, fields for energy crops, and what have you are going to demand ever more land as we attempt to mitigate the depletion of fossil fuels and keep modern civilization running.

Already, roads and parking lots have gobbled up astounding amounts of land around the world. Now we propose to use renewables to keep all those — and more — vehicles running, which will of course spur still more road and parking lot construction, and consume still more sweeping tracts of land for the energy crops and renewable-energy infrastructure that will supposedly power it all.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

 

How Soon Will Torchlight Parades Come to America?

According to reports, disgruntled taxpayers took a bus ride to visit the palatial estates of AIG executives to protest their bonuses. The citizens are being distracted by the bonuses, which are mere pocket change compared with the huge gobs of money the US government has thrown at AIG and other entities, but that’s another story. Here I want to make an observation on the anger of the masses, which is nothing to trifle with, as history has shown.

Elites obviously believe that the protests aren’t always going to be peaceful, that it’s only a matter of time until there are nasty visits from torch-wielding crowds. They may be right. And they are making preparations to deal with citizen anger.

For example, according to PR Watch,
Harvard Law School is hosting seminars in April and November to teach “Public Relations, Communications and Media Strategies for Dealing With an Angry Public.” They'll be teaching techniques for dealing with people who “are angry because you've let them down” or who “want to embarrass you publicly,” as well as “environmental groups threatening you” over issues such as “the use and disposal of toxic materials.” You can visit their website for details. A flyer announcing the seminars carries endorsements from officials with the U.S. Air Force, Federal Aviation Administration, ConocoPhillips, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.
Another sign that companies are seriously worried about unrest is this Marketwatch article, which informs us that “U.S. companies are being advised to batten down the hatches for their annual meetings this year amid rising anger among investors and the public over bonuses, bailouts, layoffs and slumping share prices.” An expert suggests that they are anticipating violence at annual meetings.

If it’s not possible to keep the pot from boiling over, torchlight parades could occur, and considering the number of guns owned by Americans, the situation could become very ugly. That is no doubt behind the preparations for mass internment.

 

Future of Mobile Phones

I’ve been watching the cellphone scene because I figure that when people start giving up their cellphones, we know things are really getting bad. Over the past couple of days two articles caught my eye.

The first article paints a troubling picture for sales of mobile phones. Until now, the convenience and continuing parade of new features have made this a growth industry, and in some countries, like Japan, cellphones are even considered fashion accessories. As such, the slowdown is ringing alarm bells among manufacturers. One egregious mistake in judgment stands out in this article.
“People are not going to give up their phones, even if there is a recession,” one analyst said. “If they lose their job it might be more important, but they are looking at their spending plans, and postponing buying new phones.”
But that is clearly wrong, as another article demonstrates.
Potentially chilling for U.S. cellphone carriers, around 19% of cellphone users have already discontinued wireless service in the past six months due to job loss or other financial concerns.
The world economic meltdown is just getting started, but already 19% of Americans have dumped their cellphones! Think of the consequences. As more people give up their cellphones, the drop in revenue will force carriers to cut back on base station maintenance, and towers with low traffic volume will be shut down. Further, as major carriers are publicly traded, they’re already losing value on the stock market.

Touted as handy for preventing crime and for keeping people in contact at times of emergencies and disasters (except when base station battery packs go dead), mobile phones could well be one of the products of technological civilization to go first.

Friday, March 20, 2009

 

First Family Starts Organic Kitchen Garden

Today we’re told that the Obamas have started an organic kitchen garden on the White House lawn. Needless to say, I applaud this action wholeheartedly. But the reason given — to get people to eat healthier foods — is really only secondary.

Two things are endangering our food supply. First, more and more people are out of work and forced to rely on handouts. But food banks and soup kitchens are overloaded and running dry. And second, we can’t expect industrial agriculture to advance any further. The “green revolution” was actually a fossil fuel revolution. Additionally, farmers depend on credit to finance their operations, and credit is in short supply. Fertilizer prices are high again this year, and fuel is more expensive than expected despite the screaming downturn in the world economy. Further, the unraveling of the world transport system presents a critical danger in view of the long distances that food is typically shipped.

So — although saying so publicly could cause a panic — the number one reason that the Obamas want us to start kitchen gardens is to feed ourselves.

In the market economy, that would ordinarily be apostasy because we are all supposed to do one certain narrow specialized job, and depend on “the market” to supply all our needs. Therefore the exhortation to start an organic kitchen garden is a tacit admission that the food production and distribution system is beginning to fall apart.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

 

Crude Must/Must Not Rise

The only way for governments, corporations, municipalities, and consumers — all of whom are up to their eyeballs in debt — to have any hope of all at servicing their debt is to have continuing high economic growth. Of course, oil is the key to growth, and that’s why OPEC recently decided not to make any more cuts, because they too realize how essential cheap oil is to world economic growth. Now we have a bear market rally, which is really only the faintest glimmer of hope, yet that has been enough to propel crude back up to $49. Dear reader, if oil jumps to near $50 on that alone, imagine what could happen if we really do have a comeback. So, to fuel economic growth, crude must not rise.

On the other hand, any regular visitor here knows also that current crude prices are too low to support enough exploration and development to replace oil reserves lost through depletion. To assure a continuing flow of oil, the price should approximately double.

The discerning already see the problem. Crude prices must rise, but they must not rise. Therefore, now is the moment that humanity must decide to “let go,” and abandon the perpetual-growth economy. More on this in the near future.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

 

Renewables and Industrial Civilization

One blog I make a point of visiting at least once a week is the R-Squared Energy Blog. I don’t think its author would agree with me in stating categorically that renewables cannot prop up industrial civilization, but a lot of his posts appear to back up my contention. Just in the last week or so he has written enlightening posts on thermal depolymerization, algal biodiesel, and cellulosic ethanol that should make the most die-hard proponents of these technologies as saviors of industrial society at least seriously rethink their positions.

Let me make it clear that I have nothing against biofuels (or any other renewables) themselves. Until humans learned to use fossil fuels, they made do with renewables. The problem is the belief that renewables will be able to sustain what fossil fuels have built. Renewables simply cannot provide the colossal amount of stored solar energy that fossil fuels do. Of course some storage is possible, but as a rule we will have to make do with real-time solar energy. As such, civilization will have to be scaled down dramatically.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

 

Public Utilities and the Problem of Scale

A largely overlooked problem faced by industrialized countries is how we will keep public utilities running as the economy continues to deteriorate. Gas, electricity, and water services require a lot of money to keep running. Some of the money is debt — which should be of even more desperate concern now — but utilities are largely dependent on user fees to keep running. And since utilities are large-scale institutions, they need to maintain a healthy flow of user fees.

Take electricity, for example. People who don’t pay their electric bills for a long time typically get cut off. Naturally, generating plants can’t provide much power for free. So what happens when too many people just can’t pay their electric bills any more? There will be a tipping point at which the plant can no longer run profitably. A coal-fired power plant, for instance, has to keep buying trainloads of coal, dispose of ash, pay its workers, keep the plant maintained, have a cash reserve, and make financial provisions for new equipment.

Naturally, depending on the type of utility, its size, local economic conditions, and other factors, the tipping point will differ widely, but since utilities can’t run without money, a tipping point has to come at some time. If a second Great Depression does materialize — as seems more likely with each passing day — it is easy to imagine that many utilities will go bust and fail to provide their services. I myself lack the expertise to perform such calculations, but it would be instructive (and certainly scary) to see what an expert has to say.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

 

Algae Biodiesel

Amid all the hype about renewables, there is rarely an admission of how little we can actually expect. Here is an article that is a shade more honest. Apparently it now costs about $33 a gallon to make algae biodiesel. Of course, refinements and improvements can bring the price down somewhat, but won’t be $1 a gallon. At least here we have an admission of the high energy inputs and very high hurdles to be surmounted. Still, renewables must ultimately replace fossil fuels if they are to really be viable. So far, they are all dependent on fossil fuels.

In fact, that still seems to be a giant blind spot in the thinking of renewable energy proponents. There is another good example of that blind spot in this article: “By exploiting waste heat at adjacent utilities… the price can probably be brought down to $5.50 a gallon.” Sounds good if you don’t think too deeply about it, but where does the waste heat come from? Of course those “adjacent utilities” burn fossil fuels.

So ultimately this is going nowhere. There will come a time when coal and oil will no longer be economically viable. Those who propose to keep industrial civilization going had better find replacements for fossil fuels, and do it quickly.

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