2014 news on peak oil, resource scarcity, etc.

I had a little bit of free time after church on Sunday and decided to see if there was any interesting resource extraction news I had missed in the past few months. Here is what I found.

A January 2014 article in the journal Energy reexamined a group of 10-year oil production scenarios proposed in 2004. A comparison of the scenarios to available figures shows that global conventional oil production peaked in 2005, with additional peaks from 2008-2011 for broader definitions of “conventional oil”. The article is available open access for anyone to examine the math, but it looks rather solid to me. Cheap oil is already in decline. So, why does oil production appear to be stable, or even increase? This is due to artificially increased production from a short-term burst of capital expenditures, as well as the explosion in shale gas, tight oil, and easily transportable liquified natural gas, which are usually improperly labeled as conventional oil in media and industry reports. The optimistic (industry) view is that these new sources, combined with decreased demand in the post-industrial West, will be able to keep things humming for some decades while more renewable options (or nuclear developments) are worked out. On the pessimistic side, John Michael Greer considers these options to simply be delaying the inevitable for a decade at most. In any case, there can no longer be any doubt that we are in the peak oil era.

On April 10, the Club of Rome released a book on peak mining, Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. I have not read it yet, but based on what I have heard about peak mining so far, I expect that it will reveal a hidden crisis. The geopolitical consequences should be fairly obvious. In a peak oil world, oil exporters have political leverage, which is why Saudi Arabia was treated with kid gloves after 9/11 and the sanctions against Russia’s Crimea actions were basically symbolic. Mining has even sharper consequences: if one country should control the world’s supply of a basic element, the only options for industrialized nations are to give in to political demands or suffer massive economic damage.

In March the WTO ruled that China has been imposing illegal tariffs on rare earths. China controls over 90% of the world’s rare earth reserves used for making cell phones etc., and by restricting its exports temporarily quadrupled the price of rare earths outside China in 2011, causing some manufacturers to relocate their major operations to China. The WTO ruling was appealed on April 18 and we have yet to see whether China will actually abide by it: the quote offered to reporters, “No matter what the result of the appeal is, China’s policy goal of protecting resources and the environment will not change,” is not encouraging. It is interesting that the international ruling “prohibiting” Japanese whaling, which resulted in a mere reduction of the year’s catch from 380 heads to 210 heads, was blanketed all over the airwaves despite its economic irrelevance, while the international ruling against China is met with popular disinterest, although I am sure Western governments are watching it closely. Whales are at least in theory a renewable resource; rare earths are not.

In financial news, last year we heard that the Dodd-Frank financial reform was a death knell for American small banks and had homogenized our financial system. In March of this year, the IMF reported that these changes were likely to become permanent because there is no real way to avoid them. This basically means that the Western financial system is extremely fragile and there is no way to tell what the impact of another economic bubble could be. It is interesting to note that China and Japan have adopted a radically different approach to their financial systems, but I cannot find a really reliable article about that at the moment.

Anyway, that’s all I got for now… I’ll continue to be on the lookout for reliable information about this.

[An earlier version of this post focused on "too big to fail" subsidies, but our knowledge of these subsidies' impact is somewhat speculative.]

Posted: April 21st, 2014 | Signs of the Times | 1 Comment »

Comparative religionists mock both believers and constructionists

A religious studies blog I follow, Religious Studies Project, has a rather telling April Fool’s joke today. Since they might delete it after April 1, I will take the liberty of quoting the whole post here.

BREAKING NEWS: Today, the RSP is “born again” – as the Theological Dispatch.

Due to a huge donation from the Templeton Foundation, we are now going in a slightly different direction. As of today, our mandate is to investigate how religion and spirituality brings positive change to society, and helps make us all better citizens of God’s world. We shall not rest until the Christian and the Muslim can go on a date together in a Chinese restaurant without fear of criticism.

It’s time to admit that spirituality is REAL. We hereby disown our previous cowardly epistemological agnosticism and cynical critical thinking. From here on in, our only theory is Truth, and our only method is Faith. God will be remembered long after Fitzgerald and McCutcheon are forgotten.

Donald Wiebe got it right, there is no future for the religious studies. But there is advertising revenue for theology.

Since this is a joke, the bloggers (mostly Ph.D. candidates, I believe) must think that the idea that “spirituality is REAL” is amusing in some way. That might sound like a harsh generalization, but this was the general attitude of my undergraduate classmates, who openly mocked religious groups at parties etc., and I am aware that this was also the fashion at several other undergraduate religious studies programs. Considering that someone who chooses to do a doctorate program in religious studies must be somehow attracted to the state of the academy, I think it is probably fair to say that the Ph.D. candidates writing for this blog find spirituality amusing.

Here is another joke: “As of today, our mandate is to investigate how religion … helps make us all better citizens of God’s world.” I would deeply respect someone who offered this as a mission statement for a book, even an academic publication. After all, the idea that the world does not belong to us alone, that it is “God’s world”, is something it is hard to be neutral on. A past generation of religious scholars, including Huston Smith, often embraced something like this sentiment. The current generation, though, is generally critical of this, and of any sentiment towards the world. The only truly scholarly attitude, they have learned, is an alienated one.

For example, Mama Lola, a sympathetic account of a scholar’s acceptance by a voodoo community that verges on a statement of personal belief, was published in 1991. Could a similar book be published today? An example of an academic publication recently reviewed at Religious Studies Project is Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, which consists of a list of assertions like “people are nicer when they are being watched” and “as groups increase in size and social complexity, belief in ‘Big Gods’ or moralizing Gods increases”. It is a mystery to me how the author of this book would engage with Porphyry, Jayadeva, or Zhuangzi. But I do not think there is any attempt at understanding here, only the self-assured superiority to all human feeling that comes with “scientific” knowledge. The spirit of Mama Lola has been totally purged from the academy, which is why the Templeton Foundation gets the scholars’ scorn.

Finally, the post gets in a good-natured dig at Timothy Fitzgerald and Russell T. McCutcheon, two scholars who question the validity of the scholarly concept of “world religions”. It is true that both Fitzgerald and McCutcheon are atheists, which prompts the joke “God will be remembered long after Fitzgerald and McCutcheon are forgotten,” an… uh… imitation of Christians’ attitudes towards Nietzsche, Darwin, etc. But it seems like the author of the post does not really understand the practical meaning of constructionism. By putting into question the tools that scholars use to compare cultures, Fitzgerald and McCutcheon actually doubt the methodological superiority of scholars to believers, which is why McCutcheon calls for an open confession of atheism on the part of scholars. In fact, the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton made the basic constructivist argument long before Wilfred Cantwell Smith, when he expressed his skepticism of the comparative methodology employed by H.G. Wells:

[Religious studies] seeks to classify Jesus … by inventing a new class for the purpose and filling up the rest of it with stop-gaps and second-rate copies. I do not mean that these other things are not often great things in their own real character and class. Confucianism and Buddhism are great things, but it is not true to call them Churches; just as the French and English are great people, but it is nonsense to call them nomads. There are some points of resemblance between Christendom and its imitation in Islam; for that matter there are some points of resemblance between Jews and Gypsies. But after that the lists are made up of anything that comes to hand; of anything that can be put in the same catalogue without being in the same category.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (1925)

The post concludes with a joke that sounds slightly somber: “Donald Wiebe got it right, there is no future for the religious studies.” As my grandma likes to say, “with every joke, there’s a meaning.”

Posted: April 1st, 2014 | Secular-Religious | 5 Comments »

Lamps: The Ruin of the Nation 「ランプ亡国論」の真実



You may be familiar with Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s essay In Praise of Shadows (1933). But were you aware that Tanizaki had a predecessor in the form of a Meiji period crank? I think not! Kaiseki Sata was a Shin Buddhist monk who published a ferocious series of essays in the 1870s, on topics such as “On the Uselessness of Bookkeeping and Ink”, “On Boycotting the Solar Calendar”, “On the Four Dangers of Western-Style Umbrellas”, “On the Great Dangers of Milk”, “On Railways: The Ruin of the Nation”, and everyone’s favorite, “A Caution Against Lamps: The Ruin of the Nation” (1880).

I was unable to find any information about the majority of these essays, but the logic of “Lamps: The Ruin of the Nation” is actually not bad. Sata warns his readers that to light Western-style lamps you need kerosene, but Japan’s only oil fields are in Niigata, and would be depleted within 50 years (1930). If Japan becomes addicted to lamps and exhausts the Niigata fields, they will have to trade their reserve funds for oil until they have no more funds, and the nation will be ruined quod erat demonstratum. The argument is basically that oil is a non-renewable resource, and is therefore not backwards but remarkably foresighted.

“The West became civilized in the Western way,” said Kata, “and Japan will become civilized the Japanese way.” He had no desire to plunge Japan into darkness. Instead, he invented himself a lamp that ran on vegetable oil, to which he gave the suitably native name kankōtō (pictured above; source). He also advocated for Japanese lamps, andon, which ran on fish oil.

Sata only neglected to recognize that Japan could not defend its independence from the oil-powered Western nations without finding some oil of its own. Running steamships and tanks on vegetable oil would have been quite sustainable, but not politically viable. Indeed, the military use of oil was a principal motivation behind imperialism and World War II.

Again, none of the other essays are available online, so I don’t know what the dangers of Western-style umbrellas were, but at least some of them are apparently collected in a journal he ran (also pictured above). Or you can read “Bread: The Ruin of the Nation”, by an unrelated author, at the National Diet Library site. Learn why bread will cause Japan’s physical, spiritual, and economic ruin! If only we had listened…

(Japanese translation)






Posted: February 28th, 2014 | Japan, Signs of the Times | 2 Comments »

The Sacred Science of Ancient Japan is released today

My first book, The Sacred Science of Ancient Japan, has been published. If you have any questions or comments about the book please leave a comment on this blog post.

Posted: January 24th, 2014 | Parahistory | 18 Comments »

Dogfight and Palindrome

Here’s a poem: 犬咬合 “A Dogfight” by 愚佛 (“Dumb Buddha”, an anonymous poet), c. 1800:

椀 椀 椀 椀 亦 椀 椀
亦 亦 椀 椀 又 椀 椀  
夜 暗 何 疋 頓 不 分
終 始 只 聞 椀 椀 椀  

Woof! woof! woof! woof! and woof woof!
And! And woof woof! and woof woof!
The night is dark, don’t know how many there are
From dusk to dawn, I hear only woof woof woof!

Here’s another poem: 廻文 “Palindrome” by 加保茶元成 (Motonari Pumpkin), also c. 1800:


Fart fart fart fart fart
Fart fart fart fart fart fart fart
Fart fart fart fart fart
Fart fart fart fart fart fart fart
Fart fart fart fart fart fart fart

Adopted from David Pollack, “Kyoshi: Japanese ‘Wild Poetry’”, Journal of Asian Studies 38.3 (May 1979). Matt already posted about the second poem; I shouldn’t have expected less.

Posted: November 23rd, 2013 | Translations | No Comments »

From a non-canon Buddhist text (T2123)

“Why everyone should fear deceit, Part 5″ 詐怖縁第五 from 諸經要集 (T2123, 0149b29), a non-canon collection of Buddhist admonitions and anecdotes from the Tang dynasty.

I translated this without punctuation because it’s funnier that way.

It is written in the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sutra: all composite things, every one is deceit. Sentient beings are foolish, unaware of close and distant. Hate, harsh speech, harm, up to taking a life. It creates these great crimes. So falling into three hells, we create innumerable sufferings. For example, in the mountains there was a little stupa. In the stupa there was a monks’ quarters. In the quarters was an oni. It brought fear and vexed the monks. There were many monks, all abandoned monks’ quarters. A traveling monk came. Rector showed him to empty quarters. And said these words. Within these quarters is an oni, spirits rejoice, vexing men. If you can live within here, go ahead! The guest monk himself had become very strong by observing precepts. Said: Little oni, what of it? I can subdue him. Saying so, he entered the monks’ quarters. Another visitor monk came seeking an abode. Rector also sent him to the monks’ quarters. Again said there is an oni men fear. This man again said, Little oni, what of it? I should subdue him. The first monk had closed door and wait for oni. At nighttime the second monk hit door, seek to enter. The first monk said, here is the oni! Not allow open door. The one who came later hit door quite strong. The monk within using strength prevented this. The one outside succeeded to enter door. The first monk hit the second, the second hit the first. At last dawn came. Really they were old fellow students. Already knew each other; they bowed in shame. Many people gathered around laughing, what strange ones! All beings are like this. Five skandhas are all void. No self, no person. Arguing over external forms creates poison and harms. Free yourself from earthly things. We are only bones and meat. No person, no self. Therefore, bodhisattvas say to all beings. You will not reach heavens by arguing. Human body desires unobtainable. How much more so for Buddha.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted: November 20th, 2013 | Excerpts | 10 Comments »

Japanische Frakturfreunde


I learned about this not because I read Twitter a lot (I don’t!), but because of my preexisting interest in the historical kana usage, which I suppose proves that I am a pimply nerd, etc. The Twitter cluster now has an official website where they defend their odd hobby. I note that it is nowhere near as formidable-looking as its German equivalent.

At least they have a website now! The 歴史的假名遣派 has been going strong for some years, from Fukuda Tsuneari’s「私の國語敎室」 in 1960, to Hisashi Inoue’s delicious Tokyo Seven Roses in 1999, to a variety of introductions to writing in historical kana, that is, “how to lose friends and alienate people”, since then. Jinja Honcho’s newsletter Jinja Shinbo proclaims itself to be the only periodical published with historical kana usage, and has a long website post where they explain it to you. Looking around the cluster’s website, I see one of their members has had a personal page since 1999. But this is the first outright advocacy group I’ve seen, and they’ve only been publishing since 2012. I guess Japan doesn’t really do advocacy.

Here is some of the wacky stuff the Twitter cluster has gotten up to:

I note with some disappointment that it’s actually rather hard to obtain editions of famous books in 正仮名遣, although not quite as hard as Fraktur. Here’s what I came up with for Soseki’s Kokoro:

Posted: October 11th, 2013 | Tradition | 4 Comments »

Reading kuzushiji, kanbun, and other premodern Japanese

Over two years ago Matt wrote an introduction to reading Edo literature. The books that he chose seem to be pretty haphazard and some can no longer be located. Since I’m trying to accomplish the same thing, here is a list of online resources that have helped me. I have no special talent for foreign languages, but if there’s premodern stuff you really want to read, it’s my experience that even if you are not a language genius, a few tools can help you get far.

Kanbun 漢文

Kanbun is classical Chinese, but it also refers to Sino-Japanese with diacritical marks. Think medieval Latin, but a bit more garbled. In Japan, kanbun is generally learned in the 2nd year of middle school (8th grade).

One option is to simply learn classical Chinese directly. My school is using a textbook by the late Prof. Archie Barnes which can teach you classical Chinese from scratch. If you already know Japanese this is a waste of time. Also, this textbook has some errors and omissions in it; there is no particularly good classical Chinese textbook for English speakers out there. Finally, this textbook is not a good preparation for reading medieval Japanese kanbun from scratch.

If you want to learn kanbun like a proper Japanese schoolboy, you will find it a lot easier than one might expect from looking at frightening walls of Chinese text. Japanese Wikibooks has a guide that can be mastered in a number of minutes. For more complex kanbun there is a high school guide that takes a couple of hours.

To look up Chinese characters you need a good kanji dictionary. If you are learning English->Chinese, Mathews’ dictionary is pretty standard. But it is not very fun, especially because you are more likely to induce errors into your translation from the outdated nature of the book than to make new discoveries. If you want real fun, get Kanjikai, which is up to date and will challenge your Japanese knowledge.

When reading original texts you will find that some variant characters that are not locatable in Kanjikai or any standard dictionaries at all. This is just a pain in the butt because there is no easy way to look these up. If you don’t have a knowledgeable specialist on hand, your best bet is to plug a guess into Hanzi Normative Glyphs and see if your character comes up.

Kuzushiji 崩し字

A while ago a blog post about how to read kuzushiji floated through Reddit. I scanned through it, opened up the PDF file (mirror), and thought to myself, “is this guy a masochist?” That was the end of my thoughts about kuzushiji until this year, when I attempted to read an Edo period document myself, opened up the PDF file again, and thought, “am I a masochist?”

Understanding how kuzushiji works makes it no less insane. Digging in deep, I found a set of Waseda University OpenCourseWare lectures from 2004. Listen to these and you might begin to see an approach to deciphering the doctor’s prescription scribbles that are pre-Meiji literature. However, the course will by no means give you the ability to actually read the things.

The only online resource I know of for this is U Tokyo’s mysteriously named SHIPS, and it will not be very helpful because you have to know roughly what kanji you are looking for.

Vocabulary and Grammar

If you run into some medieval Japanese that doesn’t appear in a modern dictionary, you should really just get a high school prep book (they have anime versions!), but Googling it rarely fails me. You may run into a website called Gejirin proffering an attempt at definition. This is a website devoted to the parahistorical document Hotsuma Tsutaye and is basically amateur-run. Don’t rely on it like you would a full medieval dictionary, but it can help point you in the right direction.

Grammar is something I’m just starting to wrap my head around. There is stuff out there online, but this too probably requires a formal textbook.

Posted: September 27th, 2013 | Japan | No Comments »













Posted: September 13th, 2013 | Kultur | No Comments »

Why were the common people called “black heads”?

In 221 BC the First Emperor renamed the Chinese common people to 黔首 “black-headed ones”. Why was this?

Chinese, Japanese, English, and French language sources were surveyed.

  • Baidu Baike: The First Emperor declared an “age of water”. Water is associated with the color black, so the common people were wearing black headscarves.
  • René Guénon: Black is associated with “anonymity”, but also with the Center and stillness, i.e. the “Middle Country”, and therefore with the purity of the “non-manifested”. (Note: Guénon was laboring under the false impression that it was the entire people, not the common folk, who were called “black heads”. Black is associated with north in China.) [source: Symbols of Sa. Sc.]
  • Wu Kun (吳崐, 1552-1620): The hair of the common people was black.[source: 黄帝内经素问吴注]
  • E.S.B.: Perhaps the hair of the nobility was not black.
  • Daijisen: Because they didn’t have any hats.

Posted: September 10th, 2013 | History | 8 Comments »