Ed's thoughts

"One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am-a reluctant enthusiast... a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards." - Ed Abby

Monday, July 12, 2010

Just in Time

Some things are important to do 'just in time': catch a wave, answer a phone, pick a ripe strawberry, stop at a stop light. But the era of globalization has created a worldwide network of 'just in time' supply chains that rely on cheap, abundant petroleum. Among other things, this system was designed to reduce warehousing costs which, in turn, increase profits. As long as there are willing workers on one side of the world, willing consumers on the other side of the world, and cheap, abundant oil to bridge the gap, the system works fairly smoothly.

There are three key variables in the formula above: 'willing consumers,' 'cheap...oil,' and 'smoothly.'

Willingness, over-willingness of the past has left many American and European consumers saddled with massive debt. Add to that rising unemployment and austerity measures which include cuts to social programs, and you get a significant portion of the population with less discretionary income. Without demand supply declines. Among all of the non-essentials shipped from China, there may be a few useful items such as tools, replacement parts and solar panels.

But shipping such items across the planet will become more expensive as the price of energy rises.

Even before the BP leak in the Gulf of Mexico, geologists and economists accurately predict that a combination of dwindling reserves and carbon trading will force up the price of all petroleum products and everything related to them. (In other words, everything.) One result of the BP gusher is that a combination of deep water moratoria and more stringent safety measures will further accelerate the price rise. As a result, even those few useful things no longer manufactured in North America will cost more due to increased shipping charges.

Oil, which once made things cheap to ship halfway across the world, will soon make it expensive.

Economists, climatologists and ecologists (among others) talk about a 'new normal' which is characterized predominantly by increased volatility and unpredictable tipping points. Volatility is not conducive to smoothness. Global trade networks designed around a 'just in time' model rely on fluid exchange. As market instability, climate instability and energy instability increase, what was once a finely oiled machine of global trade will lose a few cogs. Supply disruption of even those few items that over-indebted Americans and Europeans can still afford to buy from Asia with higher shipping costs may become less available or perhaps disappear entirely from some regional markets. Again, these items include such things as tools, replacement parts and solar panels.

Even a crappy shovel made in China is better than no shovel not made in America.

What worries me most is that the 'just in time' mentality has oozed from the business world into the minds of most Westerners. Many of those who are aware of peak oil, climate change and the global financial Ponzi scheme act as though they can afford to wait to learn how to grow their own food until the shit hits the fan. After all, it is called 'Just in time learning.'

There are two types of learning: shallow and deep.

Shallow learning can be done 'just in time.' How do I use an automated airport check-in machine? How do I use the Dewey decimal system? How do I make a Powerpoint presentation? Fair enough.

Deep learning takes time. I've spent over a decade learning how to grow vegetables organically on a human scale with the minimum of external inputs. And I'm still learning. And I will continue to learn.

I am aware of many people concerned about up-skilling for an energy constrained world. But from my observation many of them are either just thinking about what skills they may want to learn 'just in time' when they 'need to,' or they are reading about self-sufficeincy skills on the internet. Both of these approaches are entirely inadequate, and actually a bit dangerous in that they give the illusion of up-skilling without actually learning skills.

Skills take time. Skills take practice. Skills take repetition. Skills make blisters.

I can grow my own food and I can build my own house. I enjoy teaching these skills to others. But if people are going to wait to learn them 'just in time,' then I am going surfing.