The Green Gap

In the Cold War, we feared a Missile Gap was a strategic weakness. Nowadays, we must awaken to the fact that the Green Gap is true strategic weakness: the nations whose economies will thrive in the coming years will not be those with the biggest factories, but those with the most sustainable, efficient, and ecological markets. What we require is a Strategic "Green Reserve" of ecological design to weather the coming changes that both climate and resource scarcity will force on the international economy.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Revisiting London

I wrote this article around the time of the London riots when everyone was still pretty sure it was just a bunch of young hooligans taking to the streets to steal stuff. The Economist has since blogged about this feature in the Guardian about the London rioters that has clearly been tempered by the new and growing understanding of the Occupy Movement. Even the Archbishop of Cantebury has gotten into the act.

The Archbishop says:
But when the endemic problems they identified are combined with the impact of massive massive economic hopelessness and the prospect of record levels of youth unemployment, it isn't surprising if we see volatile, chaotic and rootless young people letting off their frustration in the kind of destructive frenzy we witnessed in August.
Prior to which, I had said:
Do these protests seek the overthrow of governments? Do they seek democracy and accountability? Perhaps. The immediate need that is being fulfilled for most people in these protests isn’t democracy though. Democracy isn’t a need. Accountability isn’t a need. Hope, however, is.
Who would have thought an Anglican Archbishop and a Pagan Greener could have so much in common?

But this isn't a chance for me to say "I told you so". I'm here to talk about something I didn't expect - and perhaps should have, given our knowledge of how the Spring started. It's the role of the police, and the exercise of power in general, that was a major driver in this riot:
Economic issues were important. The cause most often cited for the riots was poverty (86%), but unemployment (79%) and inequality (70%) featured prominently too. Few guessed, though, that this tinder in the box was lit at least as much by the long arm of the law as the invisible hand of the market. Almost three-quarters of interviewees said they had been stopped and searched by the police in the last year; 85% said "policing" was an important or very important cause of the riots. Just 7% believed the police do a good job in their area. (Younge, Guardian)
We have been seeing it over and over again in Occupy protests: the police are perceived as the enforcers of the 1%. Let's not consider that fact, let' take the angle of critical theory and simply analyse that statement as a text. Why are so many people in ostensibly free democracies stating that the police are the tools of the elites? Why would a major cause for the London Riots be the invasive and repetitive imposition of police authority on the working classes? The reason in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Libya is clear... but could it be that there has been a general perception of an erosion of personal rights even in the "Western Democracies"?

I'd say that's a pretty safe bet.

And when you hear people like screenwriter Patrick Meighan (The Family Guy) write:

I unlinked my arms voluntarily and informed the LAPD officers that I would go peacefully and cooperatively. I stood as instructed, and then I had my arms wrenched behind my back, and an officer hyperextended my wrists into my inner arms. It was super violent, it hurt really really bad, and he was doing it on purpose. When I involuntarily recoiled from the pain, the LAPD officer threw me face-first to the pavement. He had my hands behind my back, so I landed right on my face. The officer dropped with his knee on my back and ground my face into the pavement. It really, really hurt and my face started bleeding and I was very scared. I begged for mercy and I promised that I was honestly not resisting and would not resist.
My hands were then zipcuffed very tightly behind my back, where they turned blue. I am now suffering nerve damage in my right thumb and palm.
And when you hear about people like Retired NY Supreme Court Judge Judge Karen Smith:
Karen Smith was working as a legal observer when she saw a distressed woman pushed to the ground and beaten by an officer, she said.
When she demanded he stopped, the unidentified cop pushed her against a wall and threatened her with arrest.

The examples have become altogether too many to mention in one place. One advantage that we have is the all-pervasiveness of social media, communications equipment, and the ubiquity of handheld video.

Luckily, now, the lawyers are coming out. No, I didn't think I'd ever hear myself say that... but bear with me. Police actions have not ceased in their ferocity, I only just today saw several tweets regarding citizen journalist Spencer Mills (@Oakfosho) getting clubbed by a baton today (23.12.2011). Encampments have been destroyed, but something new is coming out of the movement: dissipation has brought new approaches.

The police can fight pitched battles in open squares against hundreds of unarmed protesters. That's something riot squads are trained for. But can they stop the hydra they have created by chasing the protesters from the squares? No. They have simply forced the occupation to adopt more effective tactics in pursuit of the same general strategy.

In this, as in so many events in history, I see one of those glaring "you really should have negotiated at the start" moments. The soft way could have aided the authorities, but they used the hard way, and fanned a spark into a flame.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

29 Trillion Served

A recent article in has brought my attention to the fact that the Fed has been helicoptering in far more money than previously thought - if you take all of the past three years into account.

To the tune of $29 trillion.

So... what is the dollar? If you believe it's anything but a myth, then I've got this bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you.

Only problem is that I deal exclusively in magic beans.
I said here that a solar power system to provide enough heat and power to supply a single house in Calgary would cost in the neighbourhood of $150,000. I was wrong.

Calgary has an average of over 2400 hours of sun per year.
This package of 20 Canadian Solar solar cells costs  $10,936.00.
It produces 20x240v of power, times 2400 hours of sun, equals 11520 kWh/year.
That's more than enough (by about a third) to power an average detached home in Calgary.
With 40 more panels, the same home could be heated, according to the StatsCan numbers in the referenced article.
Amortised over the 25 year warranty, that's $192.91 per month at 5% interest.

Bundled with the cost of your own mortgage, that would be negligible.

This nifty website let's us compare costs. For 11520kWh/year, the price would be somewhere around $100 per month in Calgary. For heating a home, Enmax charges $6.59/GJ. At an average of 140GJ/year for a Calgary home, that's about $77/month in gas heating.

Assuming no increases in gas or electricity price over the next 25 years....

...OK, really, stop laughing....

...assuming no increases in gas or electricity price over the next 25 years, solar is actually competitive. It is ABSOLUTELY competitive when comparing to electricity price alone. As a matter of fact, if you own a detached house, this basically means that you're losing money by not getting a solar system. How much are you losing? Approximately (assuming amortization over 25 years at 5% interest) $35.70/month, or $10,710 over the life of the system - again, at current market rates for electricity.

For fun... we are currently buying 900MW from BC and Saskatchewan and that is likely for the peak business hours of every day. It would take 187,500 houses equipped with this solar system to replace that amount of generation... so it's not really possible... but replacing ANY part of that generation capacity is the elimination of an expenditure for the utility. Enmax credits homeowners back for the electricity generated through microgeneration, but  am certain they take a good margin for themselves. Not only is it expenditure avoidance, it's a revenue positive proposition.

The City of Calgary, which wholly owns Enmax, should be taking this up with Calgarians far more vigourously...

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The End of Wishing

Durban has ended in yet another do-nothing-disguised-as-a-half-measure. Kyoto was never going to succeed. We have been duped long enough. We have to stop wishing others will see the light and solve the problem for us. Anjali Appadurai had it right when she said:
I speak for more than half the world’s population, we are the silent majority. You’ve given us a seat in this hall, but our interests are not at the table. What does it take to get a stake in this game? Lobbyists? Corporate influence? Money? ... You have been negotiating all of my life. In that time, you’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises.
She's right. Hell, I'm more than twice her age and they've been negotiating MY whole life. As a youth, I wrote a letter to then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney about Acid Rain - he's the only Prime Minister who actually wrote me back and signed his name on the paper, by the way. Now, after Canada took so many strides to stop the tide of noxious chemical fumes across the border (admittedly, the noxious fumes mainly stopped due to American government regulations that stated industries had to openly declare their effluents, combined with the fact the bottom fell our of American manufacturing), and was viewed as a leader in Environmentalism by so many, we've stepped out of Kyoto. Durban has been the final confirmation of a sad fact: national governments are both unequipped to and incapable of effecting adequate change to save our children's future.

At first, the thought is immensely depressing. We wonder why we let ourselves get strung along for decades with nothing but unfulfilled targets as our recompense. We wonder how - after cultivating such a careful cynicism - we could have been duped. Depression turns to horror as we think of the world our children will inherit. Horror at the thought that our kids will have it even rougher than us. Our generation is the first generation in recent history that will have less than the generation before it. Where we are newcomers to (or soon-to-be newcomers to) an economy where the search for jobs is cruel and unrelenting for so many... will our children enter a world when their search is for fresh water? Arable land? We have wants, but what wants will they have?

If you take a moment, though, it is possible to transcend this horror. We can break through the veil of inevitability if we simply change the way we look at the situation. If governments keep getting made by promises that aren't kept; if we sense that there is a rule here that seems to govern governments such that they inevitably end up taking the most wildly shortsighted path toward the future; if we are seeing the same thing happening over and over and over again, we might just be stuck in a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing system. Knowing that is the first step to liberation. It doesn't sound like it, but bear with me.

There is an ancient Norwegian poem that has a stanza which states, "Ice we call the broad bridge (Ís kǫllum brú bræiða)". If you think of it, a seafaring people which used rivers for trade shouldn't think of ice that way. Rivers were the conduit to their sources of wealth inland, ice was a stopper of commerce and... well, let's be honest... raping an pillaging. There can't be anything good about a drakkar frozen into the ice if you're a Viking. If you think about it, though, the stanza makes sense. Ice allows you to cross to the other side on foot. Previously impossible communication and trade is now possible. It just so happens that you have to use a different mode of transport, and the direction you're travelling is perpendicular to the direction you would normally travel. It takes a change of outlook, but the change doesn't mean the end - it just means you've got different opportunities.

As long as you can wrap your head around the change in lifestyle, you're gold.

The first step is realising there's a problem. The drakkar's frozen in the ice, and you're not going downriver anytime soon. Governments are trapped in a positive feedback loop that makes them do things that are not in their own long-term self-interest. In this case, it makes no sense to down the oars and grab the rudder. You're not going anywhere that way. You have to acknowledge the predicament you're in, and have a good think.

A good first stop to learning how to change a system is Donella Meadows' masterpiece article "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System". Donella Meadows is an unsung genius of systems theory, and sadly, she was lost to us before her time. What remains of her written work is well worth a read as she had a knack for making the unfathomable into something not only understandable but palatable as well. An easy reference to the twelve leverage points is on Wikipedia and her book, Thinking in systems : a primer, is available on Amazon. Her advice is great, but perhaps not exactly what we need right at the beginning. What we need at the beginning is a less sweeping philosophy. We need something a little more local.

If the national government is unable to change, then focus smaller. Change can happen at the Provincial level, the Municipal level, even the community level... but it can also happen on the individual level. As long as we have some objectives in mind when we do our local thing, we are acting in the interest of the "think global, act local" mantra. One global change we can enact locally is to rely less on hard currency, and save it for what we can't avoid using it on. If you do one or two things that either help you not spend money, or help you trade goods rather than services with other people, then you can hold on to cash for things like the heating bill - which can't be paid in carrots. Here are a few general ideas to start us down that road.

Money is a golden treadmill. The more comes in, the faster you run, the harder it is to get off. Debt is the same, only backwards. Either way, you're running... and the more you run, the more the wheel has you. The key is not to have more money or simply reduce your debts. The key is to reduce the need for money in you life. That can happen in a number of ways, and the most important one, in my opinion, is sharing. Our economies began in gift-giving and social debt rather than barter and financial debt. The concept of debt was originally moral rather than accountable. Many societies continue this gift-giving tradition. The Japanese, for one, give gifts all the time - though if you ask them, they'd like the whole tradition to stop. To my friends and family in Japan, gift-giving is a bit like a treadmill, too - once one gift is given, you MUST reciprocate. It can go on forever, and this problem is compounded by the fact that the gifts are typically useless and purchased with money. What's more, when I take a gift to my friends or family in Japan, it's typically food and they typically feel obliged to open it right there and share it with you, which is kind of defeating the purpose of giving them something. I love the Japanese very much, but their culture, much like every other culture in the world (mine included) has its weird parts. My father-in-law has a solution. He grows organic vegetables. His vegetables are DELICIOUS. He tells me with great relish how he brews up garlic and hot pepper sprays as insect deterrence, cuts bottles into little whirlygigs to put on poles so the ground vibrations scare moles, and he also likes to discuss the finer points of keeping a matsutake mushroom plot secret. To this day he's still opaque about whether or not he ACTUALLY has a matsutake mushroom plot. Well played, dad-in-law, well-played.

His goal, however, is the farming itself... so he doesn't keep most of his harvest. His vegetables go straight to his clients, who are quite delighted to have them. Here's the solution: give something home made and useful, like vegetables. Make wine or beer. Have an apple tree in the front yard and share the fruit. Do something cheap (or preferably free), make a surplus, and give it away. If it is something that replaces money that someone else might have spent, you've done your job. You have successfully stopped money - even if it's pennies - from entering the market. Gift-giving can turn into more long-term and regular arrangements. For instance, I currently teach English to a person who, in turn, comes to my house and teaches my son Japanese (and gets a good lunch out of the bargain, as well). Give what you have to show what you've got, and perhaps someone else will make the deal more permanent.

Have you spoken to your neighbours lately? Do they have a car? Do you work in the same place? You could commute together. Cars are the bane of my existence. They are endless money pits that do nothing but depreciate in value, pollute the air, and break down unexpectedly. When I was living in Canada, I walked to work 45 minutes every day (yes, even on THOSE days). I still had a car for groceries and the like, but I walked to work. It's something you might want to consider: if you have a car, you may be wasting money. Here is a nifty calculator to determine how much that might be. Here's a quick tip - buying a new car is about equal to adding over $100k to your mortgage. Ask yourself, would you like $100,000 more house, or would you like a car? If you feel you need a car for your job, is it a job you really want to be doing? Could you do a job within walking distance for $500 less per month instead of paying for insurance and gas and lease and repairs? Currently, I live in a huge metropolis with horrible traffic, and I ride a little electric scooter. It's slow, it's small, and it's cheap... but it also fits between the cars, and I get home faster than anyone driving in a four-wheeled vehicle. You could get a similar model - or an e-bike - for a reasonable amount. As a matter of fact, it's about the same as a standard adult-sized bike. To me, I'd rather pay higher rent and walk/bike than pay rent and be a slave to a car lease. In the end, not owning a car is a good financial decision, and by doing so, the money treadmill turns slower.

Going back to a gift-giving and barter economy (at least in small part) should assist us save a little money for lifestyle improvements down the road... like that solar panel you always wanted, or just a better mash tun for your all-grain brewing operation. Those are a few ideas that you can use to wean yourself and your friends and neighbours off hard currency a little. Trust me, these skills and flows of goods will come in useful! If the power goes out for a couple days, you'll be glad to know that Maggie down the road has fresh veggies, that Jim on the corner has the compost Maggie likes, and you've got the homebrew that Jim likes. These little safety nets make life a little more comfortable.

The next stop on this ride is municipal policy, and you can start to read about that here and here and here and here...