Sunday, December 20, 2009

Peak Oil Novels

To the best of my knowledge, only two “pure” peak oil novels have been published this far. If you know any more, feel free to comment/advise me on this! Only two novels are a bit surprising considering how many non-fiction books there are about peak oil. A search for "peak oil books" on will yield more than 200 hits.

The two books I know of are "Last Light" (2007) by Alex Scarrow and "World Made by Hand" (2008) by James Kunstler. If you have only heard of only one of them it will probably be Kunstler’s book because Kunstler is a peak oil "celebrity" who has also written "The Long Emergency". Below I write about each book in turn, and conclude with a brief comparison between the two books.

Last Light
British author Alex Scarrow has written an adrenaline-filled thriller that takes place during one week – a week in which the world is experiencing a global oil crisis and quickly goes down on its knees. The first day of the week, Monday, is the last normal day on Earth. Simultaneous attacks on several key oil chokepoints around the world immediately paralyzes the entire world's oil production and two thirds of it is down-and-out. Ordinary people do not understand the scale of the crisis and its consequences and believe that everything will be back to normal in no time at all - if they even notice the news. But already on that Monday, the British prime minister's advisors propose no further sale of petroleum products, food rationing, martial law, the total switch-off of all non-military traffic, including buses, trains and planes. The prime minister's immediate reaction is incredulity:

"This is over the top. If I get on breakfast TV tomorrow morning and announce measures like these, There'll be rioting in The Streets by lunch time!"

It is not oil production figures that are the focus of the book, but rather the social consequences of a radical and immediate reduction of available oil. With an apocalyptic tone, the author vividly describes how quickly the thin veneer of civilization dissolves into thin air when electricity is lost, when water no longer comes from the tap, when the food stores are empty and when the police disappears. Many incidents of lawlessness and riots are depicted in the book.

The main characters of the book are a family that consists of:
- Andy - father (a geologist and a somber peak oil proponent)
- Jenny - mother (sincerely tired of her husband's doomsday prophecies and just about to separate from him)
- Leona - daughter (a 20-year-old university student who is also sick of her father's warnings and who is only partially aware of the fact that she knows about a secret of the utmost importance).
- The family also includes the young son Jacob who is 7 years old, but his only role in the book is to be protected and to be taken care of.

Mother Jenny and daughter Leona became tired of Andy's obsession with Peak Oil a long time ago:

"The walls of his study were filled with diagrams, charts, geological maps. He had become one-dimensional over that damned fixation of his. It had eroded the funny, complex, charming personality that he had once been, and now it seemed that anything that he could be bothered to say to [Jenny], in some oblique way, linked back to this self-destructive, doom-laden of his fascination with the end of the world."

The book is an exciting thriller and the story moves forward at a furious pace. This is a book especially for those who “woke up” a few years ago and with horror realized the social consequences of declining availability of oil, but then failed to convince others (including friends and family) about the weight of the issue. There are many places in the book where such readers may beat their chests and exclaim "What did I tell you!". In the end of the book there are also a lot of goodies for conspiracy theorists...

Despite their previous skeptic attitude, Jenny and Leona are one step ahead when it really counts. Years of unwelcome sermons about the (possible) imminent destruction have left their mark. They are therefore faster than the people around them to understand what is happening, and thus think clearer and better about how to (try to) take appropriate action.

"Andy's warning, his advance warning ... the one they should have heeded a little earlier than this, had sort of paid off, kind of. Of course, if [Jenny had] listened to him four or five years ago, they'd be living in some secluded valley in Wales, with an established vegetable garden, a water well, maybe some chickens, a generator and a turbine."

Unfortunately, Jenny went to Manchester on Monday for a job interview and spends most of the book/week trying to get back to London and her children. Tuesday evening, stuck somewhere between Manchester and London, she has to admit to herself that Andy was right all the time:

"If she now, finally, had come round to trusting Andy's prophetic wisdom [...] then she had to concede this wasn’t going to sort itself out in a couple of days. Things were going to get worse. "

Andy is even worse off because he is in Iraq when all hell breaks loose, and spends most of the book/week trying to get out of there. Except for the very exciting story, the main theme of the book is the vulnerability of modern society and how dependent we are on our current energy infrastructure. The Prime Minister's advisor summarizes the core message of the book sentenciously:

"It's a very fragile world [prime minister], very fragile, built on very vulnerable interdependencies. And something like this ... what's been happening today, really could bring the whole lot down. "

World Made by Hand

The story in Kunstler’s book is set in the small town of Union Grove in the state of New York some time after peak oil. Globalization is dead and buried and the people in the story nowadays know very little about the world around them.

"There were no distant markets to send [things] to because shipping anything was slow at best and often unreliable, and travel was something you just didn’t do anymore.

The few times when electricity temporarily comes back, what can be heard on the radio is mostly crazy religious fundamentalists. Sometime in the past, there have been two nuclear explosions over Washington DC and Los Angeles, but perpetrators and motives are shrouded in mystery. The U.S. has some sort of president and government that may or may not be seated in Minneapolis, but if this is true, they are so distant that they could just as well be sitting on the moon. Beyond globalization, both nations and industrialization have collapsed and society (small scale and with a focus on agriculture and practical crafts) must be built by hand - stone by stone and wooden plank by wooden plank.

We’d gone from a few people using machines to grow monoculture crops and process them for everybody else, to a society in which at least half the people used tools skillfully with human and animal muscle to feed the other half. […] These days, most anyone who had survived was in good physical condition because life was so relentlessly physical.”

The exact year or how much time has passed since the world embarked on this new course is unclear, but a good guess is that the year is somewhere between 2020 and 2025 and that the point of divergence happened about ten years earlier. The population has been strongly decimated, mainly due to diseases and epidemics which have arrived in waves after the modern world and the modern health care system collapsed.

The main protagonist is Robert Earl, now a skilled carpenter in his wife's hometown, and with a past as a manager in the software industry. His wife, daughter and parents in law have all passed away in diseases, and his son left several years ago as a 19-year-old to "see the world". Robert and the rest of the residents of Union Grove are suffering from a kind of low-level depression, which mainly manifests itself as discouragement and lack of initiative. The book is partly about their way back to hope for a better future.

Besides the small-town residents, three other groups also play important an important role in the book:
- "The Proletarians" who live in a trailer park outside of town. Less respectable than small-town residents, but also more pushy, more active and more tattooed. This group has taken control of the city's old landfill (now a treasure trove) and they make their living on "asset stripping", i.e. traveling around in the countryside and disassembling and recycling everything that has any value whatsoever.
- The plantation owner who lives some distance from the city and "cares for" his workers. This social system is similar to a feudal system or an old cotton plantation in the South. Some people are willing to give up their autonomy and voluntarily settle as "serfs" since the plantation is well ordered and workers are served three meals a day.
- The travelling religious group (cult?) which has fled from racial tensions in the South and makes Union Grove its new home. The group is led by a charismatic preacher who is very driven and forward. The group is well organized but irritates non-members by insistent attempts to convert and recruit new members. Some members ("brothers") are former soldiers with combat experience (that come in handy in the story).

It’s hard to get away from the feeling that Kunstler’s novel is partly an addendum to his previous book “The Long Emergency”. A world made by hand is simply a way of describing the world "on the other side of the tunnel" (peak oil) in the form of a novel. Much of what Kunstler writes about in “The Long Emergency” is exactly what has happened in the world where “World Made by Hand” takes place. The book may be effective as a pedagogical way of depicting a post-peak oil world, but if unfortunately feels less successful as a work of fiction.

The two books differ a lot from each other. Where “Light” is a fast-paced thriller, the story in “Hand” moves forward at a much slower pace. Where “Light” describes the events of the actual collapse, “Hand” only vaguely refers the collapse which took place several years ago. I read “Hand” over the course of several weeks and “Light” in a few days. Although James Kunstler is the more wellknown author, it is Alex Scarrow’s book that I have to recommend. Based on the three books by Kunstler I have read, I think Kunstler is better as a non-fiction writer, and rather than recommending “Hand”, I recommend "The Long Emergency” which concerns the same topics but written in the form of non-fiction.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Effects of the Crisis - Part 5


This is part five in a set of articles about the losers of the American economical crisis. The first article set out to describe the background to the later texts (including the connection to Peak Oil). In the previous text I wrote about those who have been hit by unemployment and evicted from their homes in Suburbia. In this text I go on to those desperately searching for a job on an ever tougher American labor market.

The labor market in the U.S. today is nothing short of a catastrophy. The official numbers indicate that almost 10% are unemployed (15 million people), but these numbers exclude those who want to work more but are underemployed, and those who have given up hope and do not even bother to search for a job any more (for example by retiring prematurely, or becoming unwilling housewives or -husbands. If these groups are included, the unemployment number ends up closer to 17%.

It is hardly surprising that the youngest on the labor market have been hit harder than any other group since they have the least experience, are fired first and are re-employed last. The numbers of teenagers who want a job but can’t find one are the highest in 60 years... and before 1948 no statistics were gathered. Youth unemployment is three times higher than in other groups on the labor market and half of all college graduates under the age of 25 have jobs that do not require college degrees (for example working in a clothing store or at Starbucks). These jobs used to be staffed by less qualified youth, and among young Americans between 16 and 24 that do not study at university or perform their military service, less than 50% have a job. (Youth unemployment has also reached record numbers in a number of European countries - Spain has the questionable honor of topping this list with 39% youth unemployment.) The consequences can be long-lasting, especially for the individual, but also for the American economy:

"the damage to a new career by a recession can last 15 years. And if young Americans are not working and becoming productive members of society, they are less likely to make major purchases -- from cars to homes -- thus putting the US economy further behind"

As I have written earlier, many older Americans fear that they have not saved enough money for their retirement, and therefore postpone it. As a consequence, there are fewer chances to advance within a company, and fewer spots opening up at the bottom of the hierarchy.

As unemployment rises, the U.S. military becomes a more attractive employer for many young Americans. In 2008, the U.S. military reached their recruitment targets figures for the first time since 2004 when the violence in Iraq intensified. A 22-year old man who signed up for eight years of service says that “Hopefully, when I get out, I’ll have all my fingers and toes and arms, and the economy will have turned around”.

Others who are unemployed try to shape up and sharpen their skills in writing CVs and networking and look for support and tips in ”job clubs” that meet in churches, libraries, restaurants and hotels. But the underlying harsh reality is impossible to ignore - the labor market is very difficult in the U.S. right not. The home of the American automotive industry might be worst of as Detroit now is a city that tops all unemployment statistic.

Whatever people did not like about their jobs before, be it the salary, the boss or maybe the work load - now pales in comparison with the prospect of losing it. Where people previously counted on routinely raising their salary with 10-15% when they switched jobs, salary cuts of 20% or more is now the norm. A survey showed that 65% of the unemployed are prepared to accept wage cuts up to 30% and that 7% were prepared to lower their salary demands with up to 40-50%.

The longer you have been unemployed, the bigger the cuts you are prepared to make in your salary, but ”those who do accept lower salaries in order to ride out the recession might find that they've permanently damaged their value in the workplace”. It might thus be the case that the picky Colt Phillips (whom I wrote about in my previous text on the effects of the crisis) is doing the right thing when he is not accepting the first job offer that appears. It is on the other hand more difficult to get a job if you have been unemployed for half a year or more. In the end of September almost 5 out of 15 million (officially) unemployed Americans found themselves in this situation.

For those who accept a lower salary it is a struggle to adapt to a situation with less money, and to be forced to accept a new identity. One example is the pilot and father of five Bryan Lawlor (great article) who lost 50% of his salary when the number of flights decreased and he was ”degraded” from pilot to first officer. For others it is a struggle even to find money to pay for the basics; rent, gas and food on the table. The margins can be very thin, for example for Rainie Uselton who managed to find a new job after she became unemployed, but who lost it when her car broke down and she did not have the money to fix it (since we are talking about the U.S. it goes without saying that you must have a car to get to work). The competition for available jobs harden and this also goes for the worst paid jobs. Beyond accepting a job with a significantly lower salary, many are now also prepared to commute on a daily or weekly basis, and leave their family behind.

“people are starting to move in a makeshift and impermanent fashion. […] There are costs to this strategy. Spouses left at home must do the work of both parents. Children miss out on things. Loneliness is a steady companion for the parent on the road. Researchers have long documented strains on families that are separated.”

The situation is obviously especially difficult for those with (small) children. At the same time as the number of unemployed Americans with unemployment benefits increased from 2.5 to 9.5 millions in two years, years of neglected maintenance have decreased the possibilities of the administrative systems to deal with the high demand and to hand out money to those who are due. Most states have computer systems that are to 30 years old and that use such ancient computer languages that retired programmers have been called back to work on adapting the software.

Hundreds of thousands have therefore had to wait for money they are entitled to for months. For someone without any margins, one week’s delay is enough to make them unable to pay the rent or buy food. For Kenneth Kottowitz, three months of waiting for the unemployment benefits meant that his savings ran dry, and that he lost his flat and was forced to move to a homeless shelter that was so crowded he had to sleep on the floor for the first couple of nights. A former hotel porter, Luis Coronal, had to wait six months for his money. He and his pregnant wife moved back to his mother, but in spite of this, there were periods when they couldn’t even afford to buy food. The worst day in his life was the day when his daughter was born and he had no money to buy her clothes.

Beyond the problems for some to get their unemployment benefits, the biggest cloud on the horizon for many Americans is that there is an end date beyond which the unemployment benefits are terminated. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs since the autumn of 2007 and at the end of the summer no less than 9 million Americans got unemployment benefits. The US Congress extended the period for which you could get support twice last year.

”States typically provide 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, an average of about $350 a week. Last year, Congress tacked on 20 extra weeks of benefits, and later it added 13 additional weeks for people in states hit hardest by unemployment.”

The 59 weeks limit (at the end of 2008) has further been extended twice this year. Citizens in the hardest hit states - with with unemployment numbers above 8% (almost half the states) were eligible for support up to 79 weeks (18 months). In September a decision was taken to further extend the limit with 13 additional weeks of unemployment benefits in severely affected states.

Whiteout this last extension, large groups were expected to fall out of the system from September and on (after more than a whole year of being unemployed). Many have no plans for how to deal with such a situation even if they might formally qualify for food stamps or social security. It is difficult to determine exactly how many people are affected. I have at different times seen estimates ranging from 750 000 to 1 500 000 people losing their benefits this year, but these numbers are now smaller (at least temporarily) after it was decided to extend the benefits.

"increasing numbers of people fall off the far end, beyond the duration of unemployment benefits. The worst hit states […] will have to pony up the most in additional benefits, as an estimated 1.5 million people will have exhausted all resources by Christmas. For some states, this must cause nightmares already. Especially since it won't stop in 2009; not even the most rose colored forecasters see a significant improvement in jobless numbers any time soon. […] we could see millions of long-time, structurally unemployed soon. A true underclass."

My guess is that the problem of individuals losing their unemployment benefits will escalate in the near future, in spite of predictions that the insurance period will be further extended next year (the last extension of 13 weeks lasts until the end of the year, but it does not apply to all states).

Another problem is that employers are usually careful about re-hiring even after a recession has officially ended. After the recessions both in the beginning of the 1990’s and the beginning of the 2000’s, the number of unemployed started to fall a full year after the economic recovery had begun. Except for the fact that no recovery has been sighted, many commentators seem to have the opinion that this time around we will have a ”jobless recovery” - meaning that the economy will eventually recover, but the number of jobs will not. For those who have lost their jobs, this would mean that there is no recovery at all. As always I want to add a brief note that we can not yet even speak with confidence about a recovery:

"I’m starting to wonder how many people there are left who actually believe all the talk about the economic recovery we're supposed to have entered. You know, the one proclaimed by governments, central bankers, institutions such as the IMF and the entire flock of parrots and parakeets that call themselves media [...] Surely many must have realized by now that perhaps that talk about a recovery is just that, talk."

Finally I want to draw the attention to those who have lost their jobs but do not live in the worst affected states, and therefore have not had their insurance period extended. Of the approximately 400 000 who were on the way to fall out of unemployment benefits in September, 300 000 benefitted from the recent extensions, but 100 000 did not. Also send a thought to those who were unlucky enough to lose their jobs right before the big wave of job cuts in the spring 2007 - and who ran out of benefits a long time ago. Where are they today...? We will turn to them next, in the following text about the effects of the crisis.

The topic is tough, but there is no way to avoid mentioning the fact that the number of suicides is expected to rise in the time ahead of us. The baby boom generation (who are between 45 and 60 years old now) have the highest suicide frequency among all age cohorts. Beside the fact that people are more prone to commit suicide as they age, this group has already had a higher frequency of suicide rates than previous generations - a fact explained by higher stress in the form of higher divorce rates, a more mobile lifestyle with more moving around throughout life, and a bigger intake of drugs. The economy is obviously one more stress factor and for sure it is worst for those who are alone, old and with bad or no health insurance. In a summary of the connection between economy, unemployment and suicide from the Suicide Prevention Center, it is stated that:

“Unemployment causes financial strain and can lead to depression and other problems as individuals perceive a loss of personal control. […] We can expect a sharp downturn in the economy to increase suicide risk, especially among working-age adults and older adults whose retirement security is threatened.”

While women attempt to commit suicide more often than men, men are more ”successful” in their attempts. In 2006, one year before the economical crisis hit, more than 33 000 took their own lives in the U.S. (75% of these were men).

This text has been about those fighting by whatever means they have at hand in order to (re)enter the American labor market, and who are prepared to take any job at any salary. In part six of this series I will write about those who are even worse off and need help with the basics - like food.

This text was originally published in Swedish on November 4, 2009.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Energy footprint of Google Searches

I like Google. Slowly, step by step, I have started to use more and more services from Google. It started with searches, then continued with Gmail, Google Earth and a number of other applications and services (including Blogger, which was bought by Google in 2003 and which provides the technical platform for this blog).

I have found almost all the services I have tried useful (for myself or at least for someone else), but it is now time to scrutinize Google through the lenses of my peak oil glasses. Even if I primarily write about Google in the text that follows, “Google” could mean any business competing with Google, or even the entire Internet with all the services it provides to us in our daily lives.

In the beginning of this year, the young Harvard physicist Alex Wissner-Gross claimed that Google searches contribute significantly to CO2 emissions. The angle that the newspaper chose was that two Google searches produce the same amount of CO2 (carbon dioxide emissions) as boiling a kettle of water for a cup of tea, and that Google searches thus have “a definite environmental impact”. More specifically, Wissner-Gross claimed that one Google search generates around 7 grams of CO2 emissions. The carbon dioxide originates from producing electricity to run your computer and to run Google’s data centers. A few grams of CO2 may not sound like much if not for the fact that the number of Google searches each day exceeds two hundred million searches, and may be closer to one billion according to some sources

Wissner-Gross further claimed that the architecture of Google’s search engines was an important factor as each Google search is distributed to several data centers across the world that then compete against each other to find and return the fastest answer. What you gain in speed thus comes at a cost of higher energy consumption caused by all the extra computer capacity (unused, misused or redundant) built into the larger system.

To no one's surprise, Google rejected this interpretation and stated that the company is ”among the most efficient of all internet search providers” because their data centers are relatively energy efficient compared to "average" data centers. Google furthermore claimed that the number 7 grams CO2 per search is ”many times too high” and that the true numbers are 0,0003 kWh of energy and 0,2 grams of CO2 emissions per search. This small amount of energy is in parity with the energy burned by the human body in 10 seconds, and the CO2 emissions are thousands of times lower than the CO2 emissions caused by the average car traveling only a few kilometers. Another powerful formulation from Google is that “In the time it takes to do a Google search, your personal computer will likely use more energy than we will use to answer your query”.

Another comparison is with the numbers from this report (pdf) which claims that each spam mail ending up in your mail box on average generates 0,3 grams of CO2 emissions (the same amount as if you drive your car 1 meter). Since the number of spam e-mails sent during 2008 was approximately 62 000 000 000 000 (62 trillions), the total amount of CO2 emissions caused by spam is not insignificant and more precisely corresponds with the amount of CO2 emitted by a car driving around the world 1,6 million times. If we assume that there are about 800 million cars on Earth, then all the spam sent during 2008 corresponds to the accumulated CO2 emissions from all the world’s cars driving 80 kilometers each. I am not sure whether this is much or little in a big-picture perspective, but I have no problems being judgmental and deeming spam e-mails 100% unnecessary, and now for yet another reason. Where are the technological and social solutions to stop them`

I saw a reference in January 2008 stating that a "bizarre" record was broken one day in October the preceeding year (2007). During that one day, more than 160 000 million spam e-mails - roughly two dozen per man, woman and child on Earth - were sent. Comparing this number with the total number of spam e-mails send during 2008 (see above), we find that the record from 2007 is actually lower than the daily average of spam e-mails sent during 2008...

Other experts who have made claims about the energy use of (Google) searches state that CO2 emissions are between 1 and 10 grams (depending on whether you have to turn on your computer first), or between 7 and 10 grams (if you use your computer for 15 minutes). The Times of London, which published the original article (above), informed its readers a few days later that the newspaper accepted Google's official claim that one (simple) search (taking less than a second) produces only 0.2 grams of CO2, and that the "search" refererred to in the article involved several attempts over a teme period of several minutes. In a clarification by the physicist Wissner- Gross, he states that he never mentioned Google specifically, that the example with the kettle of water was not of his origin, and, between the lines, that the newspaper made a hen out of a feather based on the interview with him.

Maybe the number 7 grams of CO2 emissions per search originally came from this blog (May 2007)? We should anyway probably take Google's numbers with a pinch of salt since the company probably counts only the marginal cost of performing one extra search, and not the nergy cost for temporarily inactive servers, support and maintenance, and the distributet and thus reduntand work being done in several data centers for each search. Also, the idea that badly written inefficient software code wastes electricity and thus has a bigger ecological footpring than neat code is thought-provoking (although I do not mean to imply that this is a problem for Google).

The "news" about Google searches and kettles of water quickly spread to several newspapers, but seem to have been a storm in a teacup when viewed in the read mirror. So let us step back and think about the larger issues that this text touches upon. Using computers has an environmental impact. What we read and look at when we use our computers is stored on many servers that are all connected by computer networks. All of these parts require electricity (personal computers the most, servers and data centers the least, and computer networks in-between).

The electricity that we use for these purposes is generated mainly from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas (85% of the energy consumed on Earth is produced from fossil fuels). when Google states that each search generates 0.2 gram of CO2 emissions, they surely count only the energy costs for their enormous-but-highly-efficient data centers, whereas the big energy thief is right in front of your nose - your own computer at home or at work. The use of a personal computer may cause CO2 emissions of somewhere between 40 and 80 grams of CO2 per hour, and if you include this energy consumption it is easy to reach 7 gram of CO2 for an advanced search that constitutes of several steps.

As I wrote in the beginning of this text, "Google" could in this context represent something much bigger than the company itself and it is somehow difficult to understand why exactly Google was singled out for its energy consumption. In general, Google should be acknowledged for their energy policies and for their lobbying in Washington for cleaner energy sources. A few searches on the Internet (there we go again :-) reveal several examples of interesting and good inititatives from Google, like their report "Clean energy 2030 and their work on RE<C (renewable energy less than coal), where the goal is to produce renewable energy cheaper than electricity generated by coal plants. According to Google, the company's data centers use only half as much energy as the average data centers.

The global IT sector is responsible for 2% of the global CO2 emissions (according to the firm Gartner Inc.). It may not sound much, but it is as much as the global airline industry emits, and in contrast to an airline industry in crisis, the IT sector is growing rapidly on a global basis. Many actors consider numbers about energy use business secrets, and for exampe Google does not want to tell how many or how big their data centers are, or how many servers they own.

Google clims that using their search engine on the larger whole saves money and natural resources, since a Google search replaces more energy demanding activities - we no longer have to use as many car trips, time, paper or ink to have our questions answered. This is a valid argument, but it assumes that we are doing more or less the same things (the same number of searches) as before, but now in a more resource-efficient way. But we obviously did not perform a hundred million searches per day before Google and other search engines existed. Furthermore, we burn energy by doing a lot of new things with our computers which could not be done easily - or at all - before:

We may be obsessive about turning off the lights when we leave a room, but at the same time we may happily spend hours clicking around online, oblivious of the electricity lighting up our screen, heating our chip, and powering ad cooling the data centers we're connected to. (It's true that in some cases Internet use may substitute for other activities, such as travel, that would consume more energy, but let's not kid ourselves: the vast majority of computer and Internet use represents additional energy consumption.) How many Twitterheads think about their electricity use before they tweet? Not many. How many blogger think about it before they blog? Not this one.

More interesting than to examine Google in particular is to think about the energy cost of computer use in general. Alex Wissner-Gross (again) has calculated that each second of watching a web page generates 0.02 grams of CO2 emissions. This applies to "static" website content - if you watch animations or video, that number quickly becomes ten times higher. The rule of thumb is of course that the more you use a computer, the more energy you consume, and some activities (playing computer games, watching movies) are more energy intensive than others (reading a document, working with a word processor). Regarding the energy consumption of avatars, I wrote the following almost one year ago:

It is difficult to determine the benefit (or damage) of using virtual worlds. On the one hand you use considerably less energy (and generate a lot less in terms of CO2 emissions) if you cancel a trip and set up a meeting in a virtual world. A computer on the other hand uses a lot of electricity compared to non-electricity-consuming activites (go for a walk, talk with a friend, help your children with their homework).

To play World of Warcraft several hours a day can hardly be described as an activity which "replaces traveling". It is more probable that playing such a game for a long time increases the chance that you will make new (faraway) friends whom you would later like to visit (sometimes by hopping on an intercontinental flight). I am here walking on a minefield of trying to differentiate between "good" and "bad" uses of computers and the Internet. I prefer to avoid this particular discussion at this particular point in time, but might return to the issue later. We can at least for sure state that computers and galloping use of electricity may be problematic in the long run - a characteristic shared by all types of exponential development: "If not addressed, unlimited, ever-increasing compute performance will ultimately consume all the energy on the planet".

I think it is definitely legitimate to critically investigate the energy consumption and CO2 footprint of using for example YouTube, Twitter and virtual worlds. Even without approaching the issue in a normative manner (making claims about "good" or "bad" use), one may thus find clues as to which activities could become painfully expensive if the electricity and energy prices will rise and keep on rising in the future. According to a vice president at Sun Microsystems, it is totally clear that "We need more data centes, we need more servers. Each server burns more watts than the previous generation and each watt costs more".

Something to further take into account are proportions. A person who uses a computer one hour per day (40 to 80 grams of CO2 emissions per day) generates emissions somewhere in the range of 15 to 30 kilos per year. A hardcore computer user who uses his/her computer 10 hours per day thus generates something between 150 to 300 kilos of CO2 per year. Is this a lot? Driving an average car 1000 km/620 miles (a single round trip between Stockholm and Gothenburg) generates approximately 200 kilos of CO2. This by no means absolves us from caring about the energy use of computers, but it hints at the fact that the potential of reducing CO2 emissions in the computer/IT sector is - for now - limited compared to the potential of reducing our energy use by changing our habits of travelling.

This text was originally published in Swedish on October 18, 2009.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Effects of the Crisis - Part 4


This is part four in a set of articles about the losers of the American economical crisis. The first article described the background to the topic of these texts (including the connection to peak oil). In the previous text I wrote about those who formerly had well-paid jobs, but, who due to the economical crisis, have fallen both quick and far from their former positions in society. In this text I write about those who have lost their jobs, and about "creative" solutions to people's housing problems.

What do you do when you understand that you are financially vulnerable and want to do something about it by lowering your costs and your financial risk? An obvious answer is to move to something smaller. It doesn't sound like a big thing to do, but if you are 50 years old and have a few teenage children who have lived a great part of their lives in the same house, it might well be an emotional challenge to take such a decision. And, you naturally want to sell your old house for a reasonable price. You might be able to live with a lower price if you can buy a new house that has also fallen in price... and if you manage to get your house sold at all.

Only a few years ago, 4 out of 10 houses sold were investments in a second home, a house that was not the seller's main residence. This according to the CEO of "Distressed Property Institute" (what a name!) that organizes courses for real estate agents about how to deal with houses whose owners are about to be evicted. California had the largest number of evictions last year, around 500 000, and Florida was number two with almost 400 000 evictions. Also Las Vegas has seen a lot of evictions, and every 13th house in the city is now owned by a bank (since the original owner has been evicted). In the third quarter 2009 evictions hit a new record as more than 900 000 Americans were evicted from their homes (40 000 more than in the previous quarter). In addition, seven million homes are currently "in the foreclosure process or likely to be seized". These days also people living in more expensive properties are being evicted. In June, the most expensive third of all houses were represented by 30% of all evictions. Then again - what to do if you see the writing on the wall and realize that you you can't bear the costs of keeping on living in your house? With a weaker economy, sinking house prices and high unemployment, ever more people need to find solutions that were difficult to imagine just a few years ago:

“Siblings are moving in with one another to help pay the mortgage. Adult children who've lost homes to foreclosure are moving back home with Mom and Dad. Even spouses in the throes of divorce are putting off separating, living together in awkward cold wars because they can't sell their houses.”

As I wrote in the previous text, not even those who earlier made a lot of money can now feel safe - especially if they have lived over their means. Or in Titus Maccius Plautus' more than 2000 years old words: "I am rich as long as I don't pay my debts"! Take Chris Henning for example who had a six-figure income in the 1990's (guesstimate is between 8000 - 20000 USD/month) and who "invested" her money in gadgets and a second home in Florida - a home that she refinanced three times since 2002 in order to be able to shop, buy, purchase and consume even more.

“During the boom, Henning subscribed to the conventional wisdom that housing prices couldn't slide. "Looking back, I thought, 'How naive could I have been?' “

The answer is that she was naive enough to not once in her 66 years think that the economy, the stock market and the house prices might sometimes fall, instead of always rising. Others have experienced the same nasty surprise, for example Colt Phillips, who after 15 years in the mortgage industry was forced to move home to his parents at the age of 40. After being evicted from their 460 (!) m2 (5000 ft2) big house (that costed almost one million dollars), Colt, his fiancee and their two dogs moved into the parents' 130 m2 (1400 ft2) big house. Now Colt is looking for a new job (he still hopes for employment in the mortgage industry) and his fiancee, formerly a loan processor, nowadays works at Home Depot.

Not only featured in an USA Today article (above), Colt has also had the opportunity to write an article about his own situation in the prestigious New York Times (where his parents' home has suddenly shrunk (?) to 100 m2 (1100 ft2) and felt crowded). In this article you can read the story as seen from Colt's own perspective. I can only with difficulty shake off the feeling that he hasn't learned anything at all yet. He has lived with his parents for one and a half years and complains that he doesn't have enough money to play golf or "do much socially" (go partying, I presume). He feels that he is isolated, "like a monk". But most unrealistic is in my view his hopes for the future.

What he did as a mortgage broker was setting up FHA loans. He has been in contact with some potential employers (real estate) and hopes that he can works with these loans again; “FHA loans have historically allowed lower income Americans to borrow money for the purchase of a home that they would not otherwise be able to afford”.

Other unrealistic dreams are:
- "I’m still hoping that the mortgage business will take off again."
- "Our elected officials are trying to fix this mess, and Congress may come through with some helpful programs."

He further states that he could imagine taking a job that pays 10 USD per hour, but not yet. Such a job would take too much of his time. He wouldn't have the time to look for a better job and he prefers concentrating on hunting for a job with a salary good enough to allow him and his fiancee to move back to a place of their own again - "even if we just rent one". At the same time he says he misses having a job, that a job gives meaning to everyday life and that he misses the opportunity to interact with other people. In an attempt to show how much he has matured and learned he says:

"I never saw this recession coming. I made great money when times were good, but I spent a lot. […] When the economy comes back, I’m going to be a smarter investor."

In spite of already being halfway run over by a metaphorical truck, he has not yet understood that the future might not necessarily look like what he has experienced up until now. How angry won't he be if (or when) he has to bite the bullet and lower his expectations? It is often said that "hope is the last thing to die". In many cases hope is a good thing. But there are also cases when it is not functional or sensible to hope - for example if what you are hoping for is unrealistic or borders on pure fantasies or is delusional. The difficult thing is, of course, to realize what is attainable and what is unrealistic.

Personally I believe that Colt's expectations are way to high when he thinks that he will be able to 1) work with setting up mortgages so that people who can't afford to buy a house can buy a house, and 2) being a better investor "next time". But who knows, he might be lucky and land a job. In spite of it being utterly absurd, the FHA loans still exist (so far) - and there are still more people around who have learned nothing yet.

Other individuals who move back to their parents see more advantages than disadvantages. When Kanessa Tixe's dad had finished building a large house and then lost his job, she, her stepbrother and stepsister all moved to that house to share the costs. They eat their meals together, feel that they have come closer to each other, and think that it is important to stick together when the times are tough.

Also Jeffrey Root, who has moved back to his parents together with his young wife, sees many more advantages than disadvantages. The move seems to have made a big impression on him and has fundamentally altered his priorities:

“Root says people should look for unexpected joy in the struggle. “Reading all these negative stories and stuff, I [...] realized people don't know what it's like to live without an iPod," […] "I'd say we're really spoiled ... We really do need to look at what's important. […] Staying close to your family in times of need, that's the most important thing in the economic crisis," he said.”

In spite of these examples, some "experts" warn in excessively negative terms of moving together and make it sound embarrassing - as if the people who do it have many alternatives to choose between...

“challenges include lifestyle differences, generational differences, depression, money squabbles and other issues when relatives huddle together for economic relief. […] Moving in with relatives can be ‘demoralizing, humbling, dehumanizing […] You lose that sense of independence, privacy and self-esteem, [...] You lose somewhat of your identity’.”

We thereby return to "identity" which I have written about earlier in these texts about the effects of the crisis. The topic fascinates me, and I have a certain understanding for the great obstacle this might constitute to people. "We are not the kind of people who..." surely make some keep doing irrational things and continuing to choose not to see the situation as it is.

In spite of going bankrupt, the Jensens had a hard time selling stuff that carried great symbolical value to them:

“The couple agonized over the decision to sell their grill and riding mower, two signature representations of home ownership for many people. "It was like some big symbol of our failure," says Jensen.”

To lose your status in the eyes of society is both an outer and inner trip. It is easy to fall very quickly (lose one's job, be evicted from one's house) without understanding, realizing, and catching up mentally. How long can you feel as if you are a real estate agent in spite of (soon) two year having passed since you last sold a property? For how long - how many months or years - will you stick to the dream of returning to your old employment, your old salary, your old consumption habits and to your old position in society? When almost half a million Americans have lost their job every month this year and certain businesses (like construction and real estate) fall to pieces like a house of cards, you finally reach a point where it is not longer rational to think that you can get your old job and your old life back. When and how do you build a new identity that is not built on delusional dreams about something that most likely will never materialize?

This text has been about those who have had to give up the American dream about a huge home of their own in the suburbs. In part five of this series I will describe those in an even worse situation and who are prepared to take just about any job.

This text was originally published in Swedish on October 23, 2009.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Suburbia is unsustainable

I recently wrote about James Kunstler's book "The Geography of Nowhere" and about the fact that the car society (“made in the U.S.”) is grossly unsustainable. There is hardly any structure less durable after global oil production peaks than the countless and endless American suburbs. The American way of life epitomizes the wasting of cheap energy. To build and to live in a sprawling suburb and to be so totally dependent on cars is not a good position to be in when heating (or air conditioning) becomes expensive and when driving a car and maintaining a “thinned-out” infrastructure (electricity, water, roads) becomes prohibitively expensive. The fact that detailed zoning laws by default prohibits commercial activities in residential areas (for example neighborhood stores), means that the nearest supermarket is usually located so far away that any options beyond the car are hard to imagine for many Americans. 

We know that many American suburbs have problems with "subprime loans" and foreclosures today, but I think many people here in Sweden do not understand how bad things really are in some places in the United States. When I wrote about "The Geography of Nowhere", I linked to the 12-minute long film "Foreclosure Alley". I recommend it again as it opens doors and gives shocking glimpses of a total crisis of monumental unpreparedness and desperation. People who are evicted from their large, beautiful (new) houses lose hope and can't pull themselves together together to try to sell their stuff and lack the strength to pack up their stuff (or they do not have anywhere to take them) before they have to leave them. 

The business models that are presented in the film are fascinating in their perversity. Spraying dead lawns green to make them look more attractive is a great example of a Potemkin village and of the fact that surface nowadays is more important than substance. I have not been able to drop the idea and found this article about Nick Terlouw and his Greener Grass Company as well as the accompanying 2 minute long news flash fascinating. Nick works in Stockton, California, "the ground zero of the foreclosure issue," and the paradox is of course that the more people that are evicted, the better the business for the Greener Grass Company. 

A customer says that "it turns the grass green and makes the neighborhood look decent again." The fact that the grass looks fine is important, that it actually still is dead (and the human tragedies that can be imagined behind each dead lawn) becomes a secondary matter. "After the spraying, the grass had a sparkling appearance and looked not only alive but also lush and thriving" - and all this for only 200 dollars! How can someone lose hope and think that there are problems that human inventiveness cannot solve when Greener Grass Company proves how easy it is to far surpass what nature has given us! Further research has led me to the company Tate Turf Painting - "the leader in grass painting" ("We have developed a process that can have a lawn a beautiful, natural looking green within a matter of hours"). Tate Turf can provide you with everything you need to start up your own greenwashing business (equipment, color and training). 

Any change has its winners and its losers. Among the more humorous (?) phenomena are skateboarders who use real estate brokers' sites or satellite imagery from Google Earth to find empty houses with large pools, which they then convert and skate in. At an internet forum, a skateboarder writes 'God bless Greenspan, patron saint of pool skatin' ". Well then, at least one person looks at the current economic situation and likes what’s going on. 

Moving back to "Foreclosure Alley", I think we can agree that it is shocking, but it does not say much about how this situation could occur or what will happen in the future. I therefore went back and read "The next slum?" again. It is written by Christopher Leinberger, a professsor of urban planning at the University of Michigan, and it was published in The Atlantic Monthly in March 2008. I read it last spring, before the subprime crisis had reached hurricane strength, and the article made a deep impression on me. While subprime loans at the time had emerged as a problem, this was before the financial and economic crisis crisis crashed the party (the explosion occured half a year later, in the autumn of 2008). 

What Leinberger’s article describes is how some recently-built suburbs - the furthest away from everything and everyone, therefore most dependent on cars and bought by the financially weakest players on the market – are collapsing. One example is Windy Ridge, 110 kilometers (!) Northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina. In late 2007, 81 of 132 homeowners had been evicted. Thieves had broken into empty homes to steal wires and sell them for the value of copper. In some cases, the walls had been smashed to get at copper pipes, and also brass and aluminum were desirable materials to steal from abandoned houses. The market value of a looted house naturally falls a lot. “a ‘notice of foreclosure’ letter affixed to its door [is] like a big billboard saying 'come and take me'." When do we get "house-sitters" (compare this future profession with babysitters or parking attendants) who may live for free if they guard and manage a bunch of abandoned houses in order to maintain as much as possible of their value? 

The 50 homeowners who still lived in Windy Ridge now had new neighbors; homeless, drug addicts and criminal gangs that slowly entered the area and made it their home. It is easy to imagine that the woman who was interviewed had no further desire to live in Windy Ridge after a stray bullet went through her son's bedroom and into her own. But what are her options? Who in their right mind would like to buy her house at a price that has even a teneous connection to what she paid for it only a few years earlier? 

The sad story of Windy Ridge is repeated a year later in the story of Lehigh Acres, Florida. In early 2009, houses were sold for a fifth of the top prices three years earlier. Besides drugs, marihuana cultivation and scrap thieves, hunger and desperation is becoming a growing concern among those who remain. Houses have started to be sold again, but average price is ony 45 000 $ - one third of the costs of building the houses. 

In Windy Ridge and other areas where (many) homeowners have been evicted, you finally reach a breakpoint or a tipping point; when a sufficient number of houses stand empty the whole area changes, crime increases and those homeowners who remain become trapped in a vise as they can’t get a “decent” price for their houses and move on. Leinberger’s article is based on the premise that even before the subprime crisis exploded, Americans' preferences for housing was slowly changing. After 60 years of migrating to the suburbs (further and further away from the city), the pendulum started to swing back. The consequences are that many suburbs that currently still look nice are "living dead" and face a bitter fate. Their fate is similar to many American inner cities that in the1960s and 1970s declined into becoming slums with high crime rates, poverty and decay. This in turn accelerated the flight away from the inner cities for everyone who could afford to get away. 

The triump of the suburbs began in earnest after World War II. Escape from New York (1981) portrayed the city's low-water mark - the city was in such a state of decay and so unloved that nothing remained but to put up a fence around it and turn it into a prison. Today, the city has instead become hip through TV shows like Seinfeld, Friends and Sex and the City. 

But what will happen with all the scattered "McMansions" that exist today? If we take Desperate Housewives’ upper-middle-class "Wisteria Lane" and downgrade it one or two levels, where does that leave us? It is possible to imagine a suburbian cul-de-sac makover - from a handful of scattered houses to a "real" street with houses and shops that you can walk between without a car. Or perhaps you could tear down a few houses and build a nice park? Neither proposal will become common for a couple of different reasons. First, they are costly. Second, you would have to buy many plots and houses at one sweep, something that is difficult if only a few owners object to the plan. Third, there are currently major political and legal obstacles to implementing such projects. Fourth, the existing infrastructure is not well adapted to denser settlements. 

A more likely scenario is that prices in (certain) neighborhoods continue to fall until they hit rock bottom and the houses are purchased by families with very low incomes - or they might be bought and subdivided so that each house can accommodate multiple tenants. Some might become cheap hotels (flop houses) where you can rent rooms by the day, the week or the month. Still, it is difficult to see how those living in a distant suburb can earn a living when they are stranded far from the city, from jobs and even from the nearest supermarket. Another problem is that today's American suburban houses (even the bigger and nicer houses) are cheaply constructed and will not last that many years without extensive maintenance work. 

The neighborhoods best positioned to survive more or less unscathed from the scenario above are those that are economically prosperous, situated close to the city or along rail tracks or that are near a walking-friendly suburban center. 

In an article from this year
, Leinberger points out that the problem is deeper even than the number of foreclosures and that it can take a generation or longer to work through the societal changes that so far have only started in the United States. About half of all Americans want to live in detached houses (in suburbs), but 80% of the U.S. housing stock is currently situated there, while only 20% is situated in cities or city-like environments ("walkable urban arrangements"). Since we replace houses only slowly, it can easily take up three decades for supply and demand to become balanced, and a study shows that there may be more than 20 million empty homes in America's suburbs 15 years from now. Just as Kunstler argued already 15 years ago, Leinberger says the U.S. has built too many houses, to much office and retail space and all of it situationed in the wrong places:

”For the owners of that retail or housing space, every dollar that they invest will be money they don’t get back. That is another definition of a slum. There’s no incentive to invest in a slum. So here you are. You buy a 4,000 square foot house [370 m2] 40 miles [65 km] outside town. You think, wow, I got great value. But when the roof begins to go, you just patch it, because if you put a new one on it’ll cost $20,000, you’ll still be at the same selling price. So, why do it?”

There will be losers. And, yes, this is junk we’re putting up now. What’s the life expectancy of particle board and plywood under even the best of circumstances? So you have a suburb full of flimsy houses in the middle of nowhere, with no incentive for upkeep. That’s an ugly situation.”

Leinberger's text reflects the main current trends in the United States, but the joker in the deck is of course peak oil. If energy becomes radically more expensive, it is an even worse idea to live far away from everything and everyone, and the painful process of restructuring living arrangements in a whole society will be even faster and cause more harm and suffering. What do the trends above mean for us here in Sweden? Our houses are smaller and are built more densely in our residential suburbs. We also have better public transportation, even in suburbia. I would in any case, personally, for sure not buy a nice house far away and make myself totally dependent on having one or two cars to get to work or the grocery store.

This text was originally published in Swedish on June 11, 2009.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Effects of the Crisis - Part 3


This is the third part in a set of texts about the losers of the American economical crisis. In the first part I described the background to these texts (including the connection to Peak Oil). In the second part I wrote about those that have been forced to cut down on expenses and curtail their consumption. This text is about those that have had to adapt to lower incomes - either because their working hours or wages have been cut, or because of losing their well paid jobs and having had to accept a drastically lower salary.

One of them is Laura Glick, a 29 years old woman who during her best years as a real estate agent made over 100 000 dollars. After seven month of unemployment she applied for one of 150 announced jobs at the department store Kohl's - in competition with 1200 other applicants. When unemployed, she was forced to survive on less than 1 400 dollars a month and had to do away with expensive habits such as cigarettes and visits to the vet for her pets). The open job positions at Kohl's paid between seven and twelve dollars/hour. If she gets a job closer to seven than twelve dollars/hour she will work more than 40 hours a week in order to earn more than the 1 400 dollars she currently gets in unemployment benefits.

Still, her case is nothing compared to Carlos Araya's. As an oil trader at the New York Mercantile Exchange - the world's largest commodity market - he used to earn 200 000 USD a year. He began to work at NYME when he was 23 years old and worked his way up from the floor during the following 15 years. He didn't think twice about ordering lobster, the finest meat and 200 dollar wine bottles at the fashionable Palm Restaurant at Manhattan. He now works at that restaurant. From time to time he meets some of his former colleagues - some give him their support, others belittle and grin at him, and other again are unemployed and ask him if the restaurant is hiring...

Carlos is one of 25 000 persons whose job in New York's financial sector has disappeared in the last two years, and he now has to survive on his new wage of less than 2 000 USD a month (not even 15% of his previous income). He has started to lose hope about ever returning to the financial business. To make ends meet his wife has started working as a secretary again. She leaves home at six in the morning, and Carlos works until one or two at night. They work in shifts looking after their two young daughters, but there are few opportunities for the family to spend time together. Their apartment costed almost one million dollars when they bought it four years ago, and the monthly expenses plus fees and taxes are more than 50% higher than the approximately 4 200 dollars Carlos and his wife earn together every month. Their savings are running out fast and they don't know what to do.

These and other similar stories contain some food for thoughts. Should we pity Carlos? To what extent is his current situation a result of unfavorable circumstances, and to what extent is it the result of bad decisions that he and his family has made? What pity and what sympathy "should" we have for someone who made 200 000 dollars a year and for years on end ordered expensive wines without blinking? Say that you for example compare this with his current colleagues at the restaurant... And why stay in an unsustainable expensive apartment instead of moving to something more reasonable prices as soon as possible? It is not all that easy to find the direction of your moral compass when you read about Carlos or these portraits of former Lehman Brothers employees at the anniversary of the investment bank's bankruptcy.

No matter if you pity or not pity Laura and Carlos above, loss of earlier-wellpaid-now-gone jobs have consequences far beyond the individuals directly affected. When Carlos (and his friends) don't work in Manhattan any longer also Jack Yang's lunch restaurant at the 46th street has a hard time and has to fire staff.

The 25 000 lost jobs in the New York financial sector mentioned above (the number comes from New York State Department of Labor) is completed by Bloomberg's estimate that ten times that number of jobs have been lost in the financial sector (in the entire USA) between the beginning of 2008 and mid-2009. That means decreasing incomes also for many small businesses and service workers like housecleaners, waiters, hair dressers, dry cleaners, beauty salons, gardeners, nannies and jewelers. When the times were good, Jessica Rosa was a waitress at one of New York's hottest bars and earned 50 000 USD a month - despite only working three days per week. According to some calculations, more than three jobs disappear in other sectors for every lost job in the financial sector, and the higher your income is, the more you consume of services provided by other professionals:

”But every step they take toward self-reliance — each shrub they prune themselves, each cupcake they bake from scratch — hurts the people and small businesses that have long provided these services professionally.”

It is a contradiction that those who cut their expenses and start doing things themselves hurt those who make a living from providing these services. As things previously regarded as necessities are redefined as luxuries, these DIY-ers can start to take pride of their own abilities and accomplishments, but at the same time have a bad conscience on the behalf of those whose incomes they take away.

Another story that makes me feel ambivalent is the family Ferrell story that I will describe in some detail here. Mother Sharon is a housewife and the family has four children (two pairs of twins that are 7 years and 20 months respectively). Daddy Jeff works as an "industrial hygienist", evaluates health hazards in the workplace, and has a salary of 6000 USD per month. Because of the disastrous finances of the state of California, he is on furlough and has been forced to work two days less every month with a corresponding (9%) salary cut. When the family have paid their bills, housing expenses and car insurance each month, only 1 200 dollars remain for all other expenses (gas, diapers, food). The loss of 500 dollars per month forces this family to go down on their knees.

On the one hand it is absurd that a family - even with four children - can not survive on an annual income of 72 000 USD (and with considerably lower taxes than here in Sweden). Yet today they live on the margin, and they hardly seem to have been able to save any money even in the best of times. Instead they have obviously - as so many others in the U.S., Sweden and elsewhere - lived from hand to mouth.

A look at the slide show that accompanies the story and a closer read of the text gives us some clues to the reasons behind their current situation. Their enormous and wonderful house is situated in the countryside, in the middle of nowhere (65 km/40 miles outside the city of Sacramento). They of course need two cars and Sharon drives a mini-van. The monthly expenses of 360 dollars for gas are difficult to cut (in spite of the - for me - bargain price of less than one dollar per liter of gas in the U.S.). Instead of repairing the broken air condition in the van, Sharon tries to drives only when the weather is cool or when she knows that she can park in the shadow.

The cuts their expenses, the family have cut their visits to the hair dresser's, plan meals one month in advance, don't vaccinate the family's four cats and dogs, have started to use their baking machine instead of buying sliced bread, and taking fewer photos to avoid spending money on film and on developing photos. They also consider canceling their satellite television (55 dollars per month) and their eldest daughters' ballet lessons (315 dollars per month).

The family Ferrell have put themselves in a situation where they have a difficult time trying to survive on less money than than what they made when the good times were rolling. A single month without income would open up the abyss beneath their feat. The family was very vulnerable even in the best of times, and now is not the best of times. We should remember that the size of houses (and with them the prices and costs of living in them) have swelled in the U.S. during the last decades. Just sixty years ago, a newly built detached house was 90 m2 (980 ft2) on average. Forty years ago that newly built house had increased 50% in size to 140 m2 (1500 ft2). Twenty years ago that house was over 190 m2 (2100 ft2) and five years ago (2005) that house was 220 m2 (2350 ft2) large. And with every square meter/feet, the price and the costs increase.

One could blame the Ferrells' for a lifestyle built on the absence of reflection and long term planning. But if we take a closer look, we are all the Ferrell family - indeed, our entire culture is a family Ferrell-culture. Kurt Cobb quotes the author Thomas Homer-Dixon who pins down our cultural framework (our blinders).

”Collectively we have been behaving like adolescents – believing we're invulnerable, living for today while ignoring tomorrow, and sneering at anything that smacks of prudence.”

What he means in this context is that adolescents are prepared to jump feet first into projects that would make many elder people hesitate and reflect. To realize and understand both in the brain and in the guts that not everything will necessarily end up the way would like them to, is according to Cobb and Homer-Dixon a sign of maturity. The opposite is ”[to] remain in an adolescent state preferring an optimistic gloss on a simple-minded model of the world”.

The financial industry has worked from (and remained in) this immature and childish position, and maybe also all doctrinal neoclassical economists who see growth as the solution to all problems and always see new - eternal - growth just around the corner. And this too is the state that the family Ferrell have been in. And all to often you and I have been there too. What makes everything complicated and what makes me ambivalent is that all Ferrell families out there have simultaneously been victims and willing actors (perpetrators?) in this drama. To see them (us) as only one or the other is to make things too easy. To see them (us) as both victims and actors/perpetrators is what makes it so darn difficult to judge and to decide what is wrong and what is right.

This text has used three portraits to describe those that are directly affected by the economical crisis and that have come upon rough times. In the fourth part of this series, I will describe those that are worse off and have had to move back to their parents after their own living situation has collapsed.

This text was originally published in Swedish on October 13, 2009.

Friday, November 6, 2009

"The geography of nowhere" by Kunstler (1993)

Although James Howard Kunstler’s "Geography of Nowhere: The rise and decline of America's man-made landscape" (1993) is more than 15 years old, there are good reasons to take a look at his book at this particular point in time as it clearly is more relevant today than when it was published. In hindsight, it is possible to see that much of what James wrote was on the spot - almost prophetical - even if it is only now that this is becoming more and more obvious to more and more people.

James is a man with an almost sacred mission, and he preaches his doctrines as intensively as a teleevangelist preaches the glory of Jesus. He hammers in his message again and again and repeatedly comes back to two issues that overlap and interact and that penetrate all aspects of Americans’ daily lives; cars and houses. Anyone who wants to get to know James’ very critical views can check out his blog, Clusterfuck Nation, where he writes a new column every Monday. 

There is a whole complex of issues and industries that interact around cars, energy (oil), financing, road construction, (lack of) public transportation, politics, philosophy, etc. Houses (buildings) are really much broader than just the domiciles we live in and comprises both of private homes as well as commercial and public buildings. The way U.S. houses have been built, and cities designed, and the central role of cars all depend on each other, meet and are bound together by the arteries of American Society – its roads.

Since I have have lived in the U.S. myself, several questions that I have wondered about are answered by this book. Why are most neigborhoods in the U.S. built so that it is impossible to manage without a car? How is it possible to build roads without sidewalks in residential areas? Why are there are no neighborhood stores and why is the nearest supermarket always so far away? Why are the streets amazingly broad even in quiet residential neighborhoods? Why are so few people taking a stroll through their neighborhood and why are so few places within walking distance that are worth visiting in the first place?

The last question is not difficult to answer. The streets are broad, the blocks are huge and the distances are large; it is incredibly monotonous and boring to walk beside a completely straight road for 20 or 30 minutes. The whole environment is constructed so as to be traversed safely by a car traveling at 40-60 km/h and the restless brain of a curious human is just not getting enough stimulation when you are out walking in an American residential neighborhood. It is similarly very boring to walk any longer distances next to a Swedish highway or expressway.

Regardless of what the actual speed limits happen to be, the 12 meter wide roads of American suburbia are designed to be ultra-safe (for drivers) so that even a mediocre car driver can whoosh by in 70-80 km/h without risking the destruction of the car. The primary function of those roads is to channel suburban cars to the highways. The big losers of this arrangement are children who can not move freely outside of their homes without risking life and limb (beyond the fact that there are few destinations worth visiting within walking or biking distance).

Since children still need to get to school, many ride school buses to get there - a separate public transport system that "operates at huge expense, is restricted to children, and runs only twice a day". Based on their limited freedom of movement, it is understandable that many young Americans’ highest dream is to have their own car as soon as they reach the age of 16. James notes that it is basically impossible to live in any U.S. neigborhood built since 1950 without having access to a car.

Another aspect of the human-built landscape that James dislikes is that it is cheap. Cheap to build, cheap to demolish, and, it looks cheap. Many neighborhoods consist of identical houses on identical lots along identical streets in identical neighborhoods. People travel along identical highways along which there are identical strip malls. Everything looks like everything else and nothing looks like something special. It is this "nowhere" that James refers to in the title of his book:

long-distance car travel on an interstate highway is literally like going nowhere fast”. […] There is little sense of having arrived anywhere because everyplace looks like noplace in particular. […] we chose to live in Noplace, and our dwellings show it. In every corner of the nation we have built places unworthy of love and move on from them without regret.”

James writes a lot about the crappy architecture; outside of the cities cookie-cutter houses and shopping barns are erected – buildings of poor quality that do not deserve our love, or even to be taken care of. Little of what is built is meant to last for longer than in a decade or two, which means that as houses have “progressed” from being crafted to becoming a commodity - which are now consumed. In many places in the U.S., the plot is worth much more than the house and it is not uncommon to tear down an old house and build a new, rather than to maintain something that was never meant to withstand the test of time. Over time, the emotionally-charged “home” has moved towards becoming an interchangeable “house”, a place where a family “happens” to reside, eat and sleep at the moment, but which can quickly be “flipped” if something better turns up. 

James was very aware of the importance of oil to the American economy and of America's dependence on (imported) oil already back in 1993 when he wrote the book. He warned aginst continuing on the road taken, but was of course preaching to deaf ears. In addition to (significant) negative social effects of an atomized and dispersed society, and adverse effects on human physical and mental health, James characterizes the built environment of the U.S. as the greatest misallocation of resources ever: 

America has now squandered its national wealth erecting a human habitat that […] will not be usable very much longer […] suburban sprawl is too expensive to operate, too costly to maintain […]. To lose it is tragic not because America will be deprived of such wonderful conveniences as K-Marts and drive-in churches […] but becuase it was a foolish waste of resources in the first place, and it remains to be seen whether its components can be recycled, converted to other uses, or moved.”

Today, 15 years later, we can in hindsight see that instead of changing direction during the 1990s and early 2000s, the course of action was to press the accelerator, borrow more money, build more houses and more suburbs, buy more cars and build more roads. James already at the time predicted that based on the enormous amounts of resources that had already been squandered by building a car society, the course of action would be to continue to "throw good money after bad" rather than attempting to imagine alternatives and ways to change society so as to make it less dependent on cars (and oil).

Many different factors now conspire and together indicate that we have reached the end of the road, and that James's 1993 predictions are coming true, "Today's posh suburbs could easily become tomorrow's slums." Very shocking to me was this one year old and 12-minutes long film, "Foreclosure Alley" from Southern California. In the wake of “epidemic” of foreclosured homes, new depressing business opportunities appear; spraying brown dead grass green so as to make the plot and the house look more vibrant and attractive, and, to empty and throw away all that is left behind in a foreclosured house, including furniture, photographs, toys, food and fully functional consumer electronics in the shortest possible period of time. Some of yesterday's brand new suburbs (the most recently built which are furthest away from the cities) are becoming ghost towns where squatters and criminal gangs move in as the previous homeowners move out and leave empty houses behind.

Although the U.S. is in the eye of the storm when our current solutions for transportation and and housing are "challenged" after peak oil, we Europeans can not sit back and believe that we will escape the coming changes unharmed. But it is a fact that our position is significantly better. Already in the nascence of “happy motoring”, in the early 1900s, Europe was forced to import the majority of its oil while the U.S. had huge, seemingly endless resources of oil. Even though there are many car-huggers also here in Sweden, our relationship with the car is still a pale copy of the Americans' long love affair. We have smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, higher gasoline prices, more dense settlements, we drive less, build fewer and narrower roads and have better developed public transportation systems. Our starting point is thus in many ways better, but unfortunately also we tend to - even in this late hour - to place headless bets on more airfields and runways and on expanding or building new highways, instead of more cycle paths and better public transport system.

This text was originally published in Swedish on May 25, 2009.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Effects of the Crisis - Part 2


Picture: Our identity as consumers is deeply entrenched. Culture Jamming highlights this by deconstructing, playing with and questioning the things that we usually take for granted.

This is the second part in a set of texts about the losers of the American economical crisis. In the previous text, I laid the foundation to this series of texts and described the connection to oil and peak oil. I also described changing habits among Americans who are not personally hit by the crisis, but who nonetheless have chosen to limit their consumption. In this text I move on to those that do no have the choice to continue consuming as before, but are forced to consume less.

Suddenly they notice that the habit of buying whatever you want whenever you want it - a habit that was taken for granted until recently - is no longer an alternative. In order to be able to give her daughter all the gifts she wanted for Christmas (and these gifts were neither small nor few), the young mother Kristen realized that she had to abstain from the designer jeans she wanted for herself. Personally I struggle to see this as the "sacrifice" it was described as in the article in question. But you get some clues to the perceived importance of belongings when mommy Kristen says: “I want her to be able to look back, and say, ‘Even though they were tough times, my mom was still able to give me stuff.’ ” One can easily get the impression that Kristen confuses "stuff" with "love". Whatever the reasons, this translates into problems for shopping malls and the retail business in the USA.

The tendency that you can no longer get what you want whenever you want it is exemplified on a smaller scale by the coffee franchise Starbucks. They have presented sobering economic results, and have started to close down coffee shops. Where people previously did not think twice about buying a four dollar "Grande Mint Chocolaty Chip Frappuccino® blended creme with Chocolate Whipped Cream", many now abstain from buying at all, or buy their coffee where it is cheaper. Last summer it was announced that 600 of the 12 000 caf├ęs in the US were to be closed (but new coffee shops were opened elsewhere). In the beginning of this year the time had come to close down a further 300 coffee shops (just Manhattan had previously hosted 200 Starbucks coffee shops). In a humorous article in Newsweek, an even closer connection between Starbucks and the global financial crisis is made:

"I propose the Starbucks Theory of International Economics. The higher the concentration of expensive, nautical-themed faux-Italian branded frappuccino joints in a country's financial capital, the more likely the country is to have suffered catastrophic financial losses. [...] My tentative theory: having a significant Starbucks' presence is a pretty significant indicator of the degree of connectedness to the form of highly caffeinated, free-spending capitalism that got us into this mess. [...] The fact that the company [...] felt there was room for dozens of outlets where consumers would pony up lots of euros, liras and rials for expensive drinks, is also a pretty good indicator that excessive financial optimism had entered the bloodstream."

If we move towards the nitty gritty details of everyday life, I already last autumn read about how economically strained families cut down on daycare expenses for their children. If you lose you job, your children might simply have to stay at home until mum or dad finds a new job, and if you involuntarily have your working hours cut down, children might be in daycare for only a few days a week. It is worth mentioning that daycare can be very expensive in the US. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agency, the average cost of daycare is between 3 400 and 10 800 USD per year. I pay around 2000 USD/year for full-time (heavily subsidized) daycare here in Sweden and the cost for the second child is only 500 USD/year. And I pay the maximum amount - if your family income is lower, you get away with paying less...

If you have two or more children in daycare, it's doubtful whether (usually) mum's less well-paid job pays enough to cover the extra expenses that goes with professional work (formal clothes for work, gas, maybe an extra car etc.). ”In every state in the country, the monthly child care bill for two children is higher than median rent payments and as high or higher than a mortgage.” Expensive and pedagogically excellent daycare centers that earlier boasted long waiting lists now see these waiting lists as well as the number of children attending melt away. Some fear that more children will now attend lower-quality daycare that can be described as "parking lots" for children. Also (expensive) private schools have felt the same problems.

We can now also see a trend in the opposite direction, when (highly educated) American women who previously had chosen to stay at home, feel obliged to return to the labor market when their spouses become unemployed, start fearing for unemployment or have their salaries lowered. Alternatively, the value of the family's investments and/or house have now reached a level they don't feel comfortable with. This is to some extent a luxury problem affecting those that earlier had the choice not to work:

"Several studies have found that two different groups of women are likely not to return to work after giving birth: affluent ones and poor ones unable to afford child care."

Americans in the upper middle age (the Baby Boom generation) also start to worry that they don't have enough to live comfortably for 20 years after they retire. According to the Center for Retirement Research, a pensioner needs approximately 75% of his earlier income to continue to live at the same standard of living:

"while lower-income workers face a worrisome retirement reality all their own, middle- and upper-middle class workers likely face the biggest living-standard shock. That's because lower-income people can replace a good chunk of their preretirement income with Social Security, and high-income people generally have enough personal savings. But middle-class workers may see their relatively comfortable life change drastically come retirement."

None of the "traditional" ways to save money for retirement - all of them different models of investments in a growth economy - have managed to withstand the crisis. On average, the investments of the middle class have lost 40% of their value. Those who now have seen almost half their savings disappear feel betrayed by brokers, banks, funds, stock analysts, auditors, the financial authorities, the central bank and CEO's.

In the last two years, the age at which Americans expect to retire has increased with two years, and at a time when they should be free from debt and plan for lower incomes, many find themselves heavily in debt. The wealth that the elderly have is often tied to the house they live in - a house that has lost in value and today is hard to sell. Even elderly who already had retired, now find themselves at work again: "here they are, many in their 60s, 70s and beyond, desperate to find work so they can keep a roof over their heads and food on the table."

The sceptical reader might ask: 'but haven't stocks gained in value this year?'. Shouldn't this compensate for the earlier losses? Unfortunately the answer is 'no', especially for elderly who are currently living on their savings:

"Sure, the S&P 500's almost 35% rebound since March is good news, but it's not enough to make savers whole. From its peak in Oct. 2007 through this March, the S&P 500 lost almost 49%. Shave 49% off a $100,000 investment and you'll need a 96% gain just to get back to even. Younger savers can overcome that hit with time, but it's a lot tougher for people close to retirement, and nigh impossible for retirees forced to pull money out to live on".

I touched upon the new frugality and the changed attitudes towards spending money in the previous text and I return to the topic here. Many people have been letting the things they buy communicate taste, interests and values. Carolyn Baker discusses this in a text about shopping, consumerism and identity:

”buying and consuming have become part of the national culture and offer people an identity - the identity of a consumer, which -many will now be forced to abandon. Additionally […] people have come to believe that they are what they buy, and the more expensive and coveted brand or product makes a statement about who one is. […] for some, the inability to consume may be creating a fundamental existential crisis in terms of losing one's identity. "

The economical crisis undermines a life style built on spending money. To be forced to shed expensive habits and having to buy less is painful for some, and has been compared to drug withdrawal. At the same time, individuals who change their habits and take control over their economy step by step notice that they stand on a new and more stable ground and may feel a new confidence - even if they are on a materially lower level than before. It is also likely that the longer and more lasting the economical crisis, the deeper and more lasting will the (psychological) effects be for years and decades to come

Psychologists have noticed that traumas can cause changes in behavior, and the deeper the trauma, the bigger the changes. A near-death experience often makes people fundamentally change their attitude towards the importance of material success compared to personal development and relations. If you lose your job during a short-span economical downturn, it is easy to regard this as an isolated and random event with little connection to habits, attitudes and values. But to the extent that many now go through "economical near-death experiences", this might lead to a fundamental shift of values in many people. Half of all Americans now feel that they would have economical problems within one month after losing their job, and this is an uncomfortable feeling that is difficult to forget once it has taken root. Especially in combination with knowledge that this has already happened to friends, neighbors or relatives.

Some go one step further and become "economic survivalists". I now make a short diversion and return to the topic of last week; people who voluntarily cut down their expenses and choose a lower economical standard rather than being forced to do it (against their will). Nonetheless, I think the examples below are interesting since some of the proposed measures are still unthinkable for most people, but might very well become necessary for increasing numbers of individuals in the future.

The Wojtowicz family in Michigan “disconnected the satellite TV and radio, ditched their dishwasher and a big truck and started buying clothes at resale shops. ’As long as we can keep decreasing our bills, we can keep making less money’ ” says daddy Wojtowicz. His job as truck driver previously took him away from home for weeks on end, and when the salary started to shrink, the family decided to drastically change their lifestyle. Since then, they have bought pigs and chickens, and they plan to start growing food and to buy a wood stove. They have less money today and live more frugally, but are rewarded with more time together and they feel safer and sleep better at night.

In spite of their frugal lifestyle, they are outperformed by Jim Merkel, author of the book Radical Simplicity and the website Since Jim consciously makes sure he earns less than 5000 USD per year, he doesn't have to pay any income tax. In spite of the fact that 400 USD per month sounds like a very moderate amount of money, more than half of the world's population get by on a tenth of that sum, or 40 USD per month...

Merkel lives in a 20 m2 large cottage in Vermont and he eats mostly organic food that he has grown himself. He is no lunatic, but a conscientious person who in his "earlier life" worked as an engineer selling weapon systems, but who step by step and over a longer period chose to live the consequences of his convictions. The article about him is well worth reading. Merkel is rational but extreme and the economical crisis has completely passed him by (since he has voluntarily decoupled from the mainstream global economic system). Merkel is a survivor who surely would survive on eating bark from trees in the forest, but in spite of having gone further than 99.99% of all westerners, there are many interesting thoughts in his life philosophy and in his way of living.

This text has been about those who are forced to change their habits and lower their standard and expenses. In part three of this series of articles, I will write about those who have it worse and who have been hit more directly by the economical crisis.

I almost forgot to mention the queen of simple living, Sharon Astyk. A portrait of her in the New York Times is a good introduction before you take on her blog (which I subscribed to). A quote from NY Times:

"Others may see [her and her family] as colorful eccentrics, people with admirable intentions who have arrived at a way of life close to zealotry [...] Ms. Astyk has heard such talk but says her neighbors’ attitudes have softened as energy prices have risen. “People have moved gradually from ‘Sharon is a fruitcake’ to ‘Sharon is a fruitcake who might make some sense,’ " :-)

This text was originally published in Swedish on October 3, 2009.