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March 23, 2009


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Apocalyptics have a bad track record simply because the great bulk of them (like the rest of our ancestors) exist in the historical past, whereas the world, despite their prognostications, is still here.

At best, they can be the hard-nosed realists calling society's attention to the pressing problems it would rather not think about.

However, for many of them, apocalypsis is an end to itself, the expression of a personal predilection, a bias which causes them to misinterpret, bend and ignore the facts as surely as some of those they criticise.

Aside from this, their most prominent flaw is their tendency to extrapolate from existing conditions while forgetting that the world changes in evolutionary and revolutionary ways: it is dynamic, not static. They are sometimes like the man in Mark Twain's famous quote regarding the length of the Mississippi River:

"In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
- Life on the Mississippi"

The kind of oversight this represents is especially easy to make in modern times because the broader the technological base, the faster technology changes (and as Mr. Kunstler correctly points out, modern civilization is predicated upon modern technology and modern science).

His remarks about the difficulty of importing natural gas (in the Rolling Stone excerpt) and the reluctance to build new terminals in an age of vulnerability to terrorism, are a trivial but illuminating case in point.

In fact, as a recent New York Times article explains (see hyperlink below), six giant plants for producing and exporting liquid natural gas are scheduled to come on line this year; imports of natural gas into the U.S. will "at least triple" in the second half of this year. There is a worldwide glut, and prices, which have declined 2/3 since last summer, are expected to remain low for several years despite the fact that domestic producers have lowered production due to the decrease in prices.


Does this mean we should forget the long-term prognosis and stick our heads in the sand? Obviously not. The need is real, and urgent. We won't get radical, practical, and clear solutions by ignoring solar, however, simply because the technology and the industry behind it is in its infancy. The first televisions were primitive and expensive, too.

Obviously, sorting out where Mr. Kunstler is right, and where he is wrong, is a concrete task that cannot be accomplished by means of general reasoning here. I thank Mr. Talton for the additional introduction, and will have a closer look at his blog and other writings in the months to come.

P.S. It's always sunny somewhere. When it's dark "here", it's day on the other side of the world. When it's winter "here", it's summer at the antipode. In space, from geosynchronous orbit, it's always sunny, with none of the atmospheric attenuation.

This, combined with energy transfers in the form of microwave beams, and political compacts (both domestic and international) which make energy resources both non-profit and shared, have something to contribute to the current debate over clean, cheap, perpetual energy resources and the radical decrease of carbon emissions.

There's a way, and now there needs to be a will, led by the world's most advanced economies and technological powers.

For further reference:


I read The New Yorker piece a month ago and made the trek to Dmitri Orlov's blog. There is something appealing about him in the slightly ironic but almost-sunny way he talks about collapse. Kunstler, by contrast, is a bit too eager for it. His wrong call on YK2 suggests an intelligence in the thrall of ruination. Germans from Schopenhauer to Nietzache to Oswald Spengler were similarly bewitched. Alas, there was something prophetic in their pessimism.

Kunstler is necessary because he not only sees things sharply but in counterpoint to the dominant motifs of Conventional Wisdom. The lacunae in his prophecy would concern the fate of millions unable to make their way in a "world made by hand". Does he not know or not care?

I think the doomers are onto something but I can't quite make myself comfortable in the featherdown of hopelessness. As much contempt as modern civilization justifiably inspires, I suspect the alternative would be hellish. Yes, there are some potential upsides (Arizona's real-estate leviathan crashing, e.g.). But for every silver lining we can imagine, the chaos of collapse would be a cautionary tale on a Wagnerian scale.

We have been spared the barbarian hordes that brought on the fall of Rome, Byzantium, began the Dark Age, and nearly extinguished the Renaissance. We'll probably be OK.

I've read all Kunstler's books and read his blog every week. Although I think he's over the top sometimes, his basic thesis is unassailable. He scares the shit out of me.

On the strength of Soleri's comments regarding Orlov, I recently visited his site via the hyperlink provided by Mr. Talton.

After reading the blog item "Welcome to Fuffland!" I decided to get in on the fun, posting a comment which began as a humorous extension of the blog item, and which included a technical quibble in which I politely and equivocally disagreed with Orlov's assessment of certain Federal Reserve actions.

The comment never appeared, and when I wrote to Orlov via email enquiring about it, he replied:

"Your comment was rejected. Feel free to resubmit, once you are sure 'why it should be any more inflationary'. Otherwise, what would be the point?"

Congratulations to Dimitry Orlov for managing to sound just like every Stalinist era CPSU functionary I have never met (but read about in western novels). For those uncertain about the rejected comment, I include a copy below, preceded by a hyperlink to the blog item in question:


Perhaps those who create and market fuffles could be called fufflers. By transposition, this is similar to "fluffers", which in the American pornographic movie industry is a term used to describe a kind of set technician whose job is to manipulate the assets (of the male stars) behind the scenes, so as to make them temporarily more attractive to the customers (viewers).

Who knows: perhaps there already exist on YouTube grainy, ten-second videos of middle-aged men in expensive suits, moving wheelbarrows full of money. These would star (who else?) Neel Kashkari, and would be watched furtively but obsessively by those who have a fuffler fetish. Who needs Monica Lewinsky?

As a technical note, I'm not sure why it should be any more inflationary when the Federal Reserve buys U.S. Treasury securities directly from the Treasury as opposed to its usual Open Market operations where it buys them from private investors.

In the standard case, the Fed also adds Treasury securities to its portfolio, so it already has vast stores of these securities booked as assets. Don't forget that over the long-term, both GDP and the money supply to accomodate its growth increase, so the Fed's store of Treasury securities (the purchase of which increases the money supply) only gets bigger over this time frame.

When the Fed buys securities from the U.S. Treasury instead of from private investors in the secondary market, the Fed is still paying private investors, only indirectly, using the Treasury Department as broker.

The difference is that when the Fed buys directly from Treasury, the newly issued securities are not real debt: these are not counted as "debt to the public" because the Fed, as a quasi-private arm of the U.S. government, will never demand repayment of the principal. As for interest, Treasury makes pro forma interest payments on its securities held by the Fed, but by law the Fed refunds all of these (net of its operating expenses).

In effect, then, when the Fed buys securities directly from the U.S. Treasury, it allows the latter to raise funds without increasing the real debt obligations of the U.S. Government. Furthermore, by using Treasury as a broker, the U.S. Government gets to direct the use of funds to private investors.

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