Monday, January 04, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]


During yesterday's drive to Johannesburg in pouring rain my rear view window was filled with a snaking white diamond. Cars returning to work stretched as far as the eye could see. It didn't matter if you drove faster or slower, the line went on and on. Of course, we consider it normal to be able to have a car and drive wherever we want to. We consider it a right. That may be, but roads only have so much capacity. More and more people driving more and more cars, and are they going to be building more and more roads? I don't think so. In fact the roads I see are deteriorating. This is an international trend too.

Global finance is a lot like the world's roadways. It's filling up with potholes. Entire countries - yes - face bankruptcy.

...sovereign default looms in Greece, the Baltic nations (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the Balkan nations (Serbia, et al), Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Iceland and the former soviet bloc of Eastern Europe. England is a train wreck of its own (though not tied into the Euro), and even France may be in trouble. That leaves very few European nations standing. Namely Germany and Scandanavia (and I just plain don't know about Austria). What will Europe do?

Meanwhile in Dubai, the world's tallest building has just been unveiled.
How is this for an ironic opening paragraph to the article:

Dubai was preparing Sunday to inaugurate the world's tallest tower, a symbol of the Gulf emirate's unbridled ambitions, amid ongoing fears about a financial catastrophe.

The article goes on to say that since the bulk of Dubai's population are expats, and many of them have abandoned Dubai, there is a massive oversupply of real estate. But Dubai won't sink into the sand. Oh?

"As oil prices remain at these levels and the global economy recovers, the situation of the whole region is on a growth recovery path -- a plus for Dubai."

There is a big white elephant called IF, and the if relates to oil prices. If oil prices remain at current levels... Thing is...they won't.

Peak Oil is still out there, very much out there, a huge unseen presence in the story, the true ghost-in-the-machine, eating away at economies every day. It slipped offstage in 2009 after the oil spike of 2008 ($147/barrel) over-corrected in early 2009 to the low $30s/barrel. Now it's retraced about halfway back to the mid-$70s. One way of looking at the situation is as follows. Oil priced above $75 begins to squeeze the US economy; oil priced over $85 tends to crush the US economy. You can see where we are now with oil prices closing on Christmas Eve at $78/barrel.

Even with somewhat lower oil prices in 2009, the airlines still hemorrhaged losses in the billions, and if the oil price remains in the current zone some of them will fall back into bankruptcy in 2010. Oil prices may go down again in response to crippled economies, but then so will passengers looking to fly anywhere, especially the business fliers that the airlines have depended on to fill the higher-priced seats. I believe United will be the first one to go down in 2010, a hateful moron of a company that deserves to die.

My forecast for oil prices this year is extreme volatility. A strengthening dollar might send oil prices down (though that relationship has temporarily broken down this December as both oil prices and the dollar went up in tandem for the first time in memory). So could the cratering of the stock markets, or a general apprehension of a floundering economy. But the oil export situation also means there is less and less wiggle room every month for supply to keep pace with demand, even in struggling economies if they are dependent on foreign imports. Another part of the story that we don't pay attention to is the potential for oil scarcities, shortages, and hoarding. We may see the reemergence of those trends in 2010 for the first times since 1979.

Read Jim's full forecast for 2010 here.

Geopolitically things are looking tinderboxy between Iran and The West, and it's hard to imagine we'll come out the other side of 2010 without a military escalation against Iran. If that happens, expect a broadening conflict.

Swine flu - well, currently around 14 500 are dead, and the pandemic isn't on the radar of most people. I predict that in 2010 swine flu will come creeping back. In the same way we thought energy problems were behind us, in the same way we think we can sweep climate change issues out the back door - we think we can continue on as though nothing is wrong. Sorry, we can't. Life isn't a commercial, life isn't spin, life isn't a one-liner. It's reality.

Speaking of which - I spent a week in Bloemfontein recently. I stayed in a pleasant enough home. But upon closer inspection you notice the antiques, and the books of antiques. You notice around four or five cabinets stocked with tea sets. Paintings, urgly pieces of crap, covering almost every open square foot of wall. The entire house is crammed fill of green glassy objects and other apparently valuable junk. It's not hard to come away from that place with a sense that one [or both] of the owners are a little Koo koo. What on earth are going doing with four cabinets filled with teacups? Will you ever serve that much tea in an afternoon?

Other people are given to other extremes, other excesses. It might be a different form of clutter; it might be a zoo of animals who defecate on the living room floor. It might be a lazy attitude to time. Permanently engaged in computer games, or porn, or writing. Essentially then, doing a lot of inconsequential stuff.

What do we need to be doing?

We're in desperate need of decomplexifying, re-localizing, downscaling, and re-humanizing American life. - JK

Substitute the word 'American' for the country you're living in. What can we do though as individuals about who we are; and how we organise ourselves?

The successful people in America moving forward will be those who attach themselves to cohesive local communities, places with integral local economies and sturdy social networks, especially places that can produce a significant amount of their own food. I don't think that we'll be living in a world without money, some medium of exchange above barter, but it may not come in the form of dollars. My guess is that for a while it may be gold and silver, or possibly certificates issued by bank-like institutions representing gold-on-hand. In any case, I doubt we'll arrive there this year. This is more likely to be the year of grand monetary disorders and continued shocking economic contraction.

Like Jim Kunstler I see tremendous prospects in 2010 for disorder. Systemic disorder as many of our systems go wobbly. But also another kind of disorder. Ordinary civilian disorder - manifesting as disruptions, strikes, crime, and yes, war.

The recent Blockbuster AVATAR says it very well. We have killed our Mother. Everything we seem to do we seem to destroy. If we cannot become part of this world, and see ourselves as part of a unified organism, then we will become apart of this world. The Bible tells us to be fruitful and multiply, to subdue the Earth and all creatures on it. That's been interpreted lately to mean CONSUME. It's our God-given right. Except we know - all of us - perfectly well that that is not right, and not sustainable. Question is, do we respect ourselves and our environment enough to change or do we learn our lesson the old way. Fight and kill and war? Because let's be clear - war brings about a lot of the changes that need to happen also, including an almost instantaneous contraction of the number of our species. It's your choice, and mine. In 2010, we'll see the fruits of our choices laid bare.

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