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 6 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 »

Signs of the End, according to the Muslims

A recent discussion on Gornahoor, which was scrubbed from the site’s comments section, makes this quite relevant:

SAHIH BUKHARI, Volume 9, Book 88, Number 237. Narrated by Abu Huraira.

The traditions of Bukhari are considered the most authentic hadith and were compiled in the 9th century.

Allah’s Apostle said, “The Hour will not be established

[Signs of the Hour]
(1) till two big groups fight each other whereupon there will be a great number of casualties on both sides and they will be following one and the same religious doctrine,
(2) till about thirty Dajjals (liars) appear, and each one of them will claim that he is Allah’s Apostle,
(3) till the religious knowledge is taken away (by the death of Religious scholars)
(4) earthquakes will increase in number
(5) time will pass quickly,
(6) afflictions will appear,
(7) Al-Harj, (i.e., killing) will increase,
(8) till wealth will be in abundance… so abundant that a wealthy person will worry lest nobody should accept his Zakat, and whenever he will present it to someone, that person (to whom it will be offered) will say, ‘I am not in need of it’,
(9) till the people compete with one another in constructing high buildings,
(10) till a man when passing by a grave of someone will say, ‘Would that I were in his place!’
(11) and till the sun rises from the West. So when the sun will rise and the people will see it (rising from the West) they will all believe (embrace Islam) but that will be the time when: (As Allah said,) ‘No good will it do to a soul to believe then, if it believed not before, nor earned good (by deeds of righteousness) through its Faith.’ (6.158)

[Swiftness of the Hour]
(12) And the Hour will be established while two men are spreading a garment in front of them but they will not be able to sell it, nor fold it up;
(13) and the Hour will be established when a man has milked his she-camel and has taken away the milk but he will not be able to drink it;
(14) and the Hour will be established before a man repairing a tank (for his livestock) is able to water (his animals) in it;
(16) and the Hour will be established when a person has raised a morsel (of food) to his mouth but will not be able to eat it.”

Posted: July 11th, 2013 | Signs of the Times 1 Comment »

Academic institutionalization I

One of the most complex maneuvers of modernity is the reduction of original thought and creativity to a quantifiable labor product. An apprentice in a Renaissance studio, placed in a time machine and dropped in a 21st century “art school“, would be perplexed about how this could have happened at all.

The method is subtle, and sinister: institutionalization. In an ex-convict, it means inability to adapt to life outside the prison. In an ex-humanities student, it means an inability to adapt to the world outside the academic bubble, and a confusion of one’s own life goals with the goals of the academy itself. In both, a sufferer finds little society and few peers outside the institution. This year I will return to graduate school, because I was asked to do so, but at the very grave risk of making my institutionalization more severe. For expatriate English teachers such as myself, the rate of recidivism is quite high.

Institutionalization has conquered every branch of the art and humanities. About a year ago, I was surprised to learn that one can now get not only a postgraduate degree called “MM”, Master of Music, but something called a “DMA”, Doctorate of Musical Arts, in their favored instrument, e.g. trombone. That is to say, if it is not enough to study the theory of trombones for four years before you start a professional career, you can extend your trombone studies for several more years, or even indefinitely, for roughly $200,000 in non-cancelable loans. The MM was invented around 1890, and the DMA was invented in 1955. Only recently have people begun to notice that both show marks of a scam.

A childhood friend of mine on Facebook is a part-time art school postgrad. Despite the fact that she works half the time, her highest goal in life is getting that continued nod of appreciation from the academy. She recently posted this message to her wall: “I feel so uplifted by passing the review. I feel like I finally did something right and my life commitment to art hasn’t been a total waste.” This is, to me, a perfectly legitimate and honest feeling. But it’s also a symptom of institutionalization that may become lifelong.

Mencius Moldbug wrote about this phenomenon in poetry. Poetry, the most anti-social and solitary art of them all, is now an institutional product, by which one might aspire to tenure by writing a good quantity of poems and soliciting reviews from “established” academic poets (of all the absurdities). I disagree with Moldbug about how this happened, but he does link to a good essay on the subject at the Mises Institute, which should highlight how completely the academy has transformed. This is some guy named Albert Jay Nock, speaking in 1931:

Traditionally, the university was an association of scholars, grouped in four faculties: Literature, Law, Theology, and Medicine. When I say an association of scholars, I mean that it was not quite precisely what we understand by a teaching institution. The interest of the students was not the first interest of the institution. Putting it roughly, the scholars were busy about their own affairs, but because the Great Tradition had to be carried on from generation to generation, they allowed certain youngsters to hang about and pick up what they could; they lectured every now and then, and otherwise gave the students a lift when and as they thought fit.

The point is that the whole burden of education lay on the student, not on the institution or on the individual scholar. Traditionally, also, the undergraduate college put the whole burden of education on the student. The curriculum was fixed, he might take it or leave it; but if he wished to proceed to a bachelor of arts, he had to complete it satisfactorily. Moreover, he had to complete it pretty well on his own; there was no pressure of any kind upon an instructor to get him through it, or to assume any responsibility whatever for his progress, or to supply any adventitious interest in his pursuits. The instructor usually did make himself reasonably helpful, especially in the case of those whom he regarded as promising, but it was no part of the institution’s intention or purpose that he should transfer any of the actual burden of education from the student’s shoulders to his own, or contribute anything from his own fund of interest in his subject by way of making up for any deficiency of interest on the part of the student. I ask you, with your permission, to remark this point particularly.

[… The topic turns to today’s colleges.] At Columbia College (which is an undergraduate college controlled by Columbia University) a student may complete the requirements for a bachelor’s degree by including in his course of study such matters as the principles of advertising; the writing of advertising copy; advertising layouts; advertising research; practical poultry raising; business English; elementary stenography; newspaper practice; reporting and copy editing; feature writing; book reviewing; wrestling and self-defence. By availing himself of some sort of traffic arrangement with a sister institution belonging to Columbia, he may also count as leading to a degree, courses in the fundamental processes of cookery; fundamental problems in clothing; clothing decoration; family meals; food etiquette and hospitality; principles of home laundering; social life of the home; gymnastics and dancing for men, including practice in clog dancing; instruction, elementary or advanced, in school orchestras and bands.

Without the least wish to be flippant, one cannot help remarking points of resemblance here between the newest type of institutional organization and the newest type of drugstore.

And this was before the late 1960s nuked the liberal arts beyond recognition. How many liberal arts students today would even know what Nock is talking about when he mentions the “fixed curriculum”? A conservative group recently confused the hell out of an entire liberal arts college by simply referencing that concept. The idea of a standard humanities curriculum is simply vanished from the shrinking liberal arts intellect, despite its continued use in the hard sciences, which are now considered to be of a different essential quality than the humanities.

In Nock’s early modern academy, success was based on quality of thought, regardless of whether it was performed inside or outside a specific kind of building. (Think Hegel, and the Young Hegelians who debated him and each other. Unthinkable today.) What existed then, that does not exist anymore? Well, only the reason you went to college in the first place: self-betterment.

Today, the humanities do not aim to complete a well-rounded education, but to point learners towards a type of specialization and critical thought which involves them in the academy itself, directing students to publish their original research and thoughts within the institutional system. This self-obsession has a large number of consequences, most notably tricking people who merely wanted an education into pursuing a professorship they usually do not need and cannot achieve.

Now, I am not going to try to make an argument about the quality of research produced by this system, because that would be another essay entirely. My point is that maybe the people who are going into this shouldn’t be attempting to “produce research” at all. I am not an activist — far from it — but there is one thing I will say in their favor: someone who wants to “change the world” and is reduced over the course of years to writing about it has been duped, and anyone who sees through this smokescreen should be applauded. Even in 1916, many academics recognized that their life energy was being redirected into something slightly silly:

Thirty years ago I went to Harvard University to study the antennae of ‘palaeozoic cockroaches’ . . . I knew there were more palaeozoic cockroaches in Harvard than in any other institution. I divided my time between regular courses and the antennae of palaeozoic cockroaches. At the end of the year I went with my manuscript, quite a bundle of it, dealing with the antennae to the Professor of Cockroaches. I wanted it considered toward the requirements for the doctorate. I was told that Harvard University was not interested in the antennae, that it was interested only in the thorax . . . The Professor would not even look at my manuscript. The manuscript covered really only the first two joints of the antennae of palaeozoic cockroaches. It was afterward published, as the first of a series of occasional volumes by the California Academy of Sciences, and I believe is still the Authority . . .

In 1940, 70% of Harvard faculty were unsure what criteria were used to judge their worthiness for promotions and tenure, and most of them viewed this as a bad thing — contra Moldbug, by the 1940s the academics had already become completely institutionalized, and their institution had devolved into something less than a Socratic symposium. Today, we can happily (?) say that the criteria have become much more clear. Contribution to the interests of the institution, both scholarly and economic, the ability to produce continued quantities of research that do justice to the institution’s intellectual reputation, and keeping one’s nose out of trouble are among the ideological principles most valued by the postmodern academy.

To be continued.

Posted: June 24th, 2013 | Signs of the Times

Reikai Monogatari in English. Book 64-2, Chapter 1

Reikai Monogatari, the Tale of the Spirit World, is an enormous sacred text by Onisaburo Deguchi, “the Gurdjieff of the East.” The Oomoto (“Great Root”) religious movement in Japan, from which countless groups emerged, is an excellent example of Counter-Tradition. Even though many Oomoto-inspired groups have translated works into English, not a single chapter of Reikai Monogatari has ever been translated into any language*, and after reading this section, which defies all description, you will either begin to wonder why, or cease to wonder why. I have chosen sections to translate haphazardly where it pleased me to do so.

* [edited, 2015] Actually, Jean-Pierre Berthon translated parts of Book 1 into French, in his Omoto: espérance millénariste d’une nouvelle religion japonaise (Éd. Atelier Alpha bleue, 1985).

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted: April 4th, 2013 | Signs of the Times