Sunday, December 06, 2009

Interesting Times

"May you live in interesting times." Is a a well known curse, and such times are now. They were yesterday too. Sometime in early December I stumbled upon the Fujian Tulou. I think I was looking at links about Madame Chaing Kai-shek and discovered a reference to the Hakka people of China and had never heard of them. From thence saw the references to Fujian Tulou which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

Architecturally these buildings are interesting, and the other pictures from Fon Zhou's Flicker stream are worth a look. They are built of massive rammed-earth walls with some of them dating back to the 12th Century. These compounds were defensive structures protecting congregations of about 300 families. Unlike modern apartment buildings almost everywhere, there were no "deluxe" units; everyone got the same. So the heritage is not just a building but a way of life which has persisted for hundreds of years.

I fret about all sorts of things, consequential and not so consequential. Of the former sort the twin predicament of peak oil and global climate change stand out. I'm very thankful to John Michael Greer for casting these as a predicament rather than problems to be solved.
The question that has to be asked is whether a modern industrial society can exist at all without vast and rising inputs of essentially free energy, of the sort only available on this planet from fossil fuels, and the answer is no. Once that’s grasped, other useful questions come to mind – for example, how much of the useful legacy of the last three centuries can be saved, and how – but until you get past the wrong question, you’re stuck chasing the mirage of a replacement for oil that didn’t take a hundred million years or so to come into being.
Back in the 1970's there were two periods of sharp rises in oil prices in the USA in 1973 and in 1979. In both cases the proximate cause was political, and in both the economic ramifications were pronounced. As a young person at the time the realization that oil was a finite resource was brought home and I was eager to imagine appropriate responses. I did a lot of failing around, but nothing terribly productive as my peers established themselves in careers. Over the years I never thought that what I'd found out about oil as a finite resource back then was wrong, but events sure didn't turn out like I thought they would.

I don't know how long Business Week keeps it's content online, but in this week's edition is a story, Endless Oil: Technology, politics, and lower demand will yield a bumper crop of crude. The piece ends:
A nasty oil shock is always possible. But the case for bountiful oil is strong.
My own reaction to the story was that if there is a strong argument to be made, the story hadn't accomplished it. Then again, I'm no expert. Something I noticed about the expert opinions quoted in the article is they came from Cambridge Energy Research Associates. My general impression of CERA is the research they provide industry is premised in economic methods.

Lately the whole field of economics is in crisis. Back in early September Paul Krugman wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine, How Did Economists Get It So Wrong? which has been much discussed online. In this weeks The New Yorker John Cassidy has a piece After The Blowup: Laissez-faire economists do some soul-searching--and finger-pointing which deals with the consequences to the Chicago School of economics. The article is online only for subscribers. Much of the negative reaction to Krugman's piece in particular is in the form of "No we didn't!" Cassidy's piece presents some economists squarely in this camp, but many more economists are coming around to admitting that the finacial crisis does indeed suggest a failure. Perhaps "crisis" is too strong a word to describe what's happening within the economics field, and the more gentle construction is that the economic crisis "raises questions." Even the willingness to ask questions seems an advance in the field of economics.

John Michael Greer's post linked to earlier makes the point that mostly we've failed to ask the right questions. Perhaps as a field economists are forced to question whether they've been asking the right ones. So far I've seen too little engagement with the predicament of peak oil and climate change in the economic field. What's troubling to me about the Business Week article is how speculation is translated into positive fact. I'm left unconvinced.

Ah, but that leaves me wondering, while thinking our predicament is dire: What am I gonna do?

I don't have a good plan. The New Year is always a time for thinking anew, whether I want to or not. It's the middle of the month of January already, so I figured I'd put up my question to remind myself to start asking questions, and to start to do something. If nothing else the Fujian Tulou remind me that people in other periods of predicament responded in ingenious ways. Perhaps I can respond creatively too.

Happy New Year everyone.