Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Peak Oil and Us (You, Me, Everyone) Part V.1 - The End

The end of my Peak Oil story has two parts, sort of like the upcoming Harry Potter film, except that there is less in the way of wands and Voldemort and Weasleys. Too bad, really, it might be a bestseller if it did.

Even, if some naysayers are right, and the unlikely theory that some oil comes from abiogenesis, or components of it, and there isn't an inherently ending supply, it's unlikely that we can keep up with projected oil demand, which continues to outpace our ability to produce supply.

Our society is quickly coming to a tipping point. The question is, will we hide our heads in our neatly groomed lawns, or will we acknowledge that we are the proverbial frog in the pot of water? It's a question I genuinely can't answer. Most of us are much better at responding to events than planning for them.

The decline of oil is the sorites paradox of our time. The paradox asks at what point is a heap of sand no longer a heap of sand if the sand is removed, one grain at a time. And because I find the sorites paradox so fascinating, let's extrapolate some of the arguments on sand and replace them with the debate on whether there will be an oil shortage.

Here's what wikipedia says about denial of the heap to non-heap discussion.

'On the face of it, there are some ways to avoid this conclusion. One may object to the first premise by denying 1,000,000 grains of sand makes a heap. But 1,000,000 is just an arbitrarily large number, and the argument will go through with any such number. So the response must deny outright that there are such things as heaps. Peter Unger defends this solution. Alternatively, one may object to the second premise by stating that it is not true for all collections of grains that removing one grain from it still makes a heap. Or one may accept the conclusion by insisting that a heap of sand can be composed of just one grain, and solely deny the further conclusions regarding zero-grain or negative-grain-number heaps.'

At what point is there no longer oil to meet the need...or the want? This is what is called Epistimology, or an unknowable boundary. We've never calculated what we actually need. We humans confuse need with want on a daily basis.

Denial is one natural outgrowth of an unknowable thing. Atheists deny god, the faithful wholeheartedly believe, Agnostics sit on the fence, all without any evidence for or against. It's entirely normal and predictable that some will embrace the theory of Peak Oil and make, or try to make proactive changes. Some will deny it to the stars and use as examples the boundaries of what they can see and touch. Others will fall into the 'wait and see' camp. The conflict between the three perspectives only serves to make us look harder to find answers, even when they aren't apparent. That is, if we can all remember to play nicely together. If.

There are those that will bank on the world remaining as it is, with change only entailing growth and expansion. There are those who will forecast the end of the world. There are those who will take a more moderate approach in their predictions or reactions. I tend to think extremists on any end have less of the truth than those in the middle, but only sometimes. Sometimes the extremists are right (like, say, America's founding fathers, who technically committed high treason). I guess we'll have to see.

In the meantime, there are a few simple steps to take. I'll outline them in the final installment.

Interestingly, this month's issue of Mother Earth News has an interesting commentary on food miles, and the impact of oil usage on our future. While it's clear that the mileage our food travels is not the only environmental impact, it is the one that is most susceptible to the changes that Peak Oil. I'll talk more about food miles for the final installment, but it's worth reading a bit about.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Peak Oil and Us (You, Me, Everyone) Part IV - Getting Dirty

So let's see. Where did I leave off on Peak Oil?

At some point in the next 10 years or so, it is likely that we'll start to see the impacts of peak oil. Gas and home heating oil prices are probably going to spike sooner, but we'll see a tipping point only after those prices have reached a point where either a) Americans decide that a little civil (emphasis on the civil part) unrest is a good way to get heard and/or b) even the well-to-do start to be impacted.

In contrast to the above paragraph, probably most of you are thinking something like "Um, gas prices are down, thanks. So if all these supply issues are real, then why didn't gas stay high?
Well, there is an explanation. The high gas prices started their downward trajectory after their peak in 2008 just as the economic crisis was making it's way around the world. Remember the headlines - hundreds of thousands laid off every month, with no end in sight, banks on the verge of collapse, that sort of thing?

Unless you were living in a mud hut, you heard about this stuff. No offense intended to mud hut dwellers, of course.

Gas price swings are not directly related to supply. In many cases, they are about projected demand. When you think of it that way, it makes perfect sense that the price at the pump is different from what the actual long term supply is.

So it's easy to look at stable gas prices and see Peak Oil - and this series of blog posts as yet another sky-is-falling paranoid delusion. The implications of Peak Oil are unimaginable to most of us. Me even. Things always get more prosperous for America, right?

If only we could be so lucky.

Oh, how I wish all of the above were true, and you could just write this off and call it a day. I do.
But it isn't, so let's move on to reality and what baby steps can be taken now to help us plan for then. First, and most key is thinking with your tummy. Think local. Think dirt. Think seeds. Think the farmstand down the road. Think Chickens in Your Backyard. Hey, chickens as pets are cool now, right?
I'm not going to tell you how to start a garden. There's a ton of resources out there to tell you just that. But here's what I am going to tell you - some of that perfectly maintained lawn your lawn service grooms in the back might just be the perfect place to solve some long term problems, so lay off the weed-killer, since it's not very tasty or good for you.
And here's some other things - gardening is a great way to get all of you outside, even the smallish ones. Kids love to grow things. Kindergarten, remember? Seeds in little paper cups covered in plastic wrap on the windowsill. Read even a toddler the story of The Carrot Seed (for what it's worth, this is one of those rare board books that both my toddler and I can read approximately 412,356 times a night and still enjoy). Then go plant one. It's not too late - just cover it up with these in the fall and watch it grow.
The key here is to start small. Sure, Peak Oil is a big problem. But we've got a few years yet, so don't go tilling up your entire plot of land or stockpile Ensure. Get a tomato plant. When you have a nice big one, slice it up with some salt and realize that a dirt manicure can be one of the most gourmet experiences there is.
We're all going to have to get dirty at some point. All the better if we first learn how to enjoy it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Naked in Public

Talking about economic vulnerabilities - your own, that is - is kind of like taking off your underpants in public. Even people who have their own vulnerabilities look away, as if you've done something embarrassing, like drunkenly photocopy your butt at the office Christmas party. It's that vaguely uncomfortable look, the one that begs you to change the topic. To anything, really.

Those conversations - it's just not done, especially amongst those of us who make good incomes and should have it all locked up.

Even if we all don't, it's social convention that you do. If you don't, then it must be a personal failing. After all, if you make a good income and don't live above your means, everything is supposed to continue along linear paths.

I typically don't follow linear paths well, having never colored within the lines particularly well, but the financial lines...well, I stay in the box. I grew up in less-than-stellar financial circumstances, and I have made darn sure that life would be different for myself, no matter how many hours I had to put in to make it so. If that meant coloring within the lines, so be it. I can conform when I need to.

But what if financial vulnerability isn't a personal failing? What if someone is good at their job, works hard, stays on top of things and gets it done still gets laid off? What if the inability to find a new job for some of the folks that have been out of work for a year or more isn't that they are substandard employees or the leftovers of the labor market? What if they, in fact, are us?

It's easier to think of them as, well, them. Not us. Never us. We're too good, to valuable, too, well, whatever - to become them. They must have done something wrong, right?

Here's the thing - what if they didn't? What if they are us?

A recent radio report on foreclosures in Massachusetts was eye-opening. See, the folks who had no economic fallback - the most vulnerable - lost it all a long time ago in this recession. With no backup resources, no emergency funds, no retirement accounts to raid, those who lost their jobs or saw their business fail because of the recession were the first to go down.

Where are the foreclosures now? In the good neighborhoods. The nice towns with landscaped lawns and granite countertops and good schools.

Why now? Because they -them- like us, had savings. Had retirement accounts. Had resources to keep the bad things away. For a while. Until they couldn't any more. And now amidst the lovely neighborhoods, close to the good schools, the granite countertops are getting dusty. The lawns are getting overgrown. And the residents? Gone.

It makes me sad to see. Not because I don't think that some people over-leveraged themselves or made bad decisions, or did strategic defaults when they didn't have to. But some of them didn't. They worked hard, saved, paid off their credit cards. And went down anyway, when a month of unemployment turned into a year. Or two.

I think that when you fall down the economic ladder, you lose something of what you were. Maybe you gain something else, it's hard to know.

Yep, it's like taking off your underpants in public. We just don't do it. Because we are not them. And as long as that is true, then no one needs to discuss things quite so unpleasant.

Am I talking about me? No. Honestly no. Are we a bit vulnerable? Sure, but not exposed - we can make it work. But could it be? Sure. More easily than I'd like to admit.

Here's the thing. You can do it all right and still go wrong. And then they wouldn't be them any more. They would be us.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

An Interesting Conundrum

We're heading into the 6th week of my husband's unemployment, and it's been up and down.

We enjoyed our vacation and time off together quite a bit, but came home to the news that we may have to defer collecting unemployment. Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states that allows the unemployed to collect benefits before burning through any severance, but that is only if the severance is classified correctly. In my husband's case, it may not have been, so we're waiting to hear if we need to wait until late October before seeing any unemployment checks.

I can't say it isn't stressful, even though we'd get through the time OK. It leaves a lot of things up in the air, and that's not pleasant. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

As we've reviewed our budget to see where else we can cut in the event that the news isn't good, I've come across a problem. There just isn't too many places we can cut.

Sure we have cable, and phones with data plans. Of course, eating out will be rare - a given. We can definitely eliminate other small dribbles of spending. Our June vacation was our last for a while.

Those are the simple things. But most of our spending has been on fixed expenses such as the house, or one-time larger investments such as a renovation project. And while some of those projects probably could have been delayed, the reality is that most of our projects have been of the necessary sort - new oil tanks, replacing the electrical panel, demoing a bathroom due to a water leak. It's just a fact of life in a lovely but old home. Believe me, spending money on dumpsters and wiring isn't enjoyable. I'd much prefer a new rug for the living room.

So even cutting back on those things, when and where we can, doesn't create a lot of leverage in our budget. We don't eat out much anyway, especially because a toddler dropping things on the floor and perpetually trying to escape her high chair doesn't make for a relaxing time. We haven't seen a movie in the theater in over a year. We don't do shows or concerts or sporting events. We get our DVDs from the library. We've never had a lot of interest in whooping it up, preferring to have a well-padded savings account, maxing our retirements, and truly enjoying hanging out at home.

The reality is that we'd almost have been in a better place if we blew a lot of money on meals out, shopping, trips to the casino and so on. Like I said, that's the easy stuff.

We're still in an okay place right now. But it's frustrating to do it all 'right' and still end up stressed and worried about the future.

The only upside of all this is that we have a lot of company.

To Tweet or Not To Twit

I'm going to be honest here. I don't tweet.

And I don't want to. Ever.

As a blogger, I should want to build my mindshare and exposure by using Twitter. But I just can't bring myself to.


Because I'm not that interesting on a moment-by-moment basis. Seriously, does anyone care that I'm 'heading out 2 plant strawberries' or think 'So nice out 2day'? And if so, why do you? Can anyone explain that to me?

I've read some tweets. They weren't that interesting either. Even the ones that notified me of a sale or something. I'm just going to say it. Twitter is silly. It reminds me of the type of notes I wrote in middle school.

Besides, who has time? I work, I have a family, a home, a garden. I blog, I email, I try my best to spend time with friends and family. Should be enough, right?

I don't Facebook either. I probably should, except Facebook seems to use melodrama as a key form of communication, and that's something I'd like to avoid. I'm sure there's good stuff about it, lots of interesting stuff. I've never logged on though. Maybe I should.

But then again, planting strawberries is more of a priority to me right now.

Hello my name is MoneyPenny, and I'm hopelessly social-media lame.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Longest Vacation Ever

I realize it is probably utterly ironic that I left for a long road trip, then followed it immediately (like, 4 days later) with another road trip in the middle of writing a series of posts on Peak Oil.

Aside from a few days between trips, I have effectively been on vacation since June 17th. The most relaxing part? The last 2 days, which I've spent at home.

Putting 1500 miles on the car is neither frugal nor relaxing, but I must say, we had fun.

Still, it's nice to be home, and back to our routines.

I hope everyone had a nice 4th of July.