Saturday, December 31, 2011

Texas Cattle Collapse

We had some recent posts on both current and pre-historic Southwest collapses caused by drought.  I had picked up an earlier piece on the effect on cattle ranching and had not posted on it yet.  So I double checked and found a more recent piece: oddly enough from Raleigh, NC’s News & Observer (One of the Original McClatchy papers).
HOUSTON -- Blame the long-running drought in Texas for the largest single-year decline in the state's cow herd, which experts say is likely to drive up beef prices. Since January, the number of cows in Texas is expected to have decreased by about 600,000 - a 12 percent drop from about 5 million cows. That's according to David Anderson, a livestock economist in College Station who monitors beef markets for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. The trend is likely the largest drop in the number of cows any state has ever seen, Anderson said. Texas only had a larger percentage decline during the Great Depression.
This is the earlier story I had seen and never quite got around to posting on.
Sheila McNulty, Financial Times, 2 October 2011 (ht: NC)

Many of the cattle at the weekly auction in Columbus, Texas, were so weakened by the state’s year-long record drought that Tanya Reeves decided against buying.
“Even the younger ones look so thin their bones are showing,” Mrs Reeves said, watching the steady parade of cattle with her two-year-old son, Ian.
Auctions across the state are being inundated with similar animals as ranchers are forced to sell amid a drought that has left them with insufficient grass, hay and water.
While drought has also affected Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Georgia and Louisiana, Texas is its biggest victim – with more than $5.2bn in agricultural losses and heavy blows to its cattle industry – the nation’s largest, which provides 16 per cent of the country’s beef cows.
Cows selling for 50 cents a pound would have sold for 80 cents two weeks ago. That adds up to a significant loss on a 2,000lb cow….
 “What am I going to live off if the cows are all gone?’’ Mr Krebs said. “I’m 53 years old. Where am I going to get a job when I’ve done this all my life?’’
So you have a series weather event that may have some extremely long term consequences.  I will say that at least some of the national press is not ignoring the problem, but it hardly gets top billing either.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Cattle rustlers and ag theft

We have commented before on rural theft in an earlier post on rural California.  We had come across a video link on rural theft, and earlier a started a post on Texas cattle rustlers.  So I thought we could collect a few more anecdotal accounts, and just make a mushy mess of it.

You see there are still cattle rustlers in Texas. And there are still people chasing them
A typical heist has the rustler pull up to the pen after work hours. He opens the gates and chains them to the open end of his transport trailer. He then drives rustles the eight calves into the trailer. The eight calves weigh about 2 tons, but have the advantage over a grand piano or a wall safe in that they transport themselves. They are worth about $4,800. The time

The thief pulled his trailer up to the pen late at night, after the last worker had gone home. Opened the two iron gates and chained them to the mouth of his trailer. Whooped the calves through the makeshift chute and into his trailer, and drove off with 4,000 pounds of cow worth about $4,800. If there are no hitches or hang-ups, less than 5 –minutes are need.
The 15,000 member Texas and Southwestern Cattle Ranchers Association has 29 special rangers. They carry guns and are allowed to make arrests. It appears that they stay busy.

Dan Barry, New York Times, 6 June 2011 via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The rangers have the respect of cattle rustlers; they know this because a rustler said so. A few years ago, they helped to pen Jerome Heath Novak, a clever, clean-cut cattle rustler from a proud ranching family in Brazoria County who was so audacious in his nighttime thefts that he even stole livestock from Nolan Ryan, the baseball legend and Texas icon. He was caught only after taking to auction a stolen calf with a distinctive barbed-wire scar, which someone noticed.

Before being sent to prison, a remorseful Mr. Novak, then 27, sat down with rangers to help them understand the mind of the cattle rustler. He confessed to not liking sale barns with motion lights or people living on site, and said he avoided ranches and sale barns that had the cattle raisers association's blue membership sign on display.

"I tried to keep away from that because it's a band of members that will hold together and push the issue," said Mr. Novak, who goes by Heath. "Someone else is there, behind them, backing them up."

And we have the video link.
CBS 47 Special Report: Ag Theft, 7 November 2011 Fresno, CA (hat tip: GG- who is not good at hat tipping himself...but oh well.)


Abigail Curtis, Bangor Daily News, 21 October 2011

TROY, Maine — The farmers are fed up with having their farm stands pilfered for cash, and they’re definitely not taking it anymore.

Joyce Benson of Troy, who grows vegetables on the Detroit Road, estimates that over the last two seasons thieves have stolen well over $1,000 from the lock box at her roadside stand, and she’s not the only one in her agricultural community to have been robbed.

“Honor system farm stands are easy prey, “ she said. “All of us have lost money. People have shut down their stands because they can’t afford to keep losing.”

We had had an earlier story about cattle thieves in Texas.  Well know Florida is seeing the same thing.

Modern-day cattle rustlers strike, make off with 'pets'.
Peter Franceschina, Sun Sentinel, 20 November 2011

Cattle rustling in South Florida is rare. Largely built-out Broward does not have any recent cases, but the two Palm Beach County thefts are being called a sign of the hardscrabble economic times. And there has been a rash of thefts costing ranchers millions of dollars in southern and Midwestern states, with beef prices at relative highs in the past year.

"I would certainly say it's trending upward," said Jim Handley, executive vice president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association. "I am hearing of it occurring a little more in recent years, than I have in the past 15."

In the Palm Beach County cases, the bad guys weren't on horseback, with lassos. They were hauling an enclosed aluminum trailer — the kind used by lawn services — behind an older, black Ford F150 pickup with an extended cab and peeling hood paint; a Navy Seal plate adorned the front.

The two men in their early 20s — it turns out there was a witness who saw part of the theft play out — managed to load six cows into the trailer on the morning of Oct. 2. Then they simply vanished.

Georgia is also seeing problems.   And we will end with this Georgia piece, but I think the point is not that there has never been rural theft, but that we are seeing at least a transitory change across a broad area.

Robbie Schwartz, The Walton Tribune, 21 December 2011

Since falling victims to the theft, the Raines have been canvassing the area, putting up flyers in businesses along highways 138 and 81 and into the Jersey community. They have benefited from a local business looking at footage from a security camera, though it did not yield any new information. While the Raines

“We have certainly noticed an increase,” Walton County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Bruce Wright said. “It is a sign of the times and a battle every day for us. People are hurting financially right now and stealing to put food on the table. And oftentimes, in the more rural areas, there is less chance of people seeing them. As a consequence, we cannot do our job without the public’s help. It is so helpful to us when people call 911 and let us know of suspicious persons in their neighborhood.”

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Putting a Cork in the Persian Gulf

Iran is starting to look a lot like Japan in 1941 after FDR announced the oil embargo of Japan.  Having puruid a policy that antagonizes a lot of people, Iran is looking at facing serious sanctions.  Given the enormous amount of unrest that has already been demonstrated there, the leadership cannot afford economic prob

Using some dated information, the Persian Gulf countries are responsible for producing about 25% of the worlds oil.  Most of that is sent through the Persian Gulf.

David E. Sanger and Annie Lowrey, New York Times, 28 December 2011

WASHINGTON - A senior Iranian official on Tuesday delivered a sharp threat in response to economic sanctions being readied by the United States, saying his country would retaliate against any crackdown by blocking all oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital artery for transporting about one-fifth of the world's oil supply.

The declaration by Iran's first vice president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, came as President Obama prepares to sign legislation that, if fully implemented, could substantially reduce Iran's oil revenue in a bid to deter it from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

The American effort, as described by Mr. Cohen and others, is more subtle than simply cutting off Iran's ability to export oil, a step that would immediately send the price of gasoline, heating fuel, and other petroleum products skyward. That would "mean that Iran would, in fact, have more money to fuel its nuclear ambitions, not less," Wendy R. Sherman, the newly installed under secretary of state for political affairs, warned the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month.

Instead, the administration's aim is to reduce Iran's oil revenue by diminishing the volume of sales and forcing Iran to give its customers a discount on the price of crude.

Adding weight to their threat, Irans top naval commande has seconded the threat and said it would be easy to close the straights.

Second Iranian official says regime could close gulf to oil traffic

LA Times, 28 December 2011

ORTING FROM TEHRAN -- Iran’s top naval commander told Iran's English language Press TV on Wednesday that closing the Persian Gulf to oil tanker traffic would be "easier than drinking a glass of water" but added that Iran would not do so for now.

"Closing the Strait of Hormuz for Iran's armed forces is really easy ... or, as Iranians say, it will be easier than drinking a glass of water," said Habibollah Sayyari. "But right now, we don't need to shut it as we have the Sea of Oman under control, and we can control the transit."...

But an oil expert, who also did not want to identified, said : "It is suicide if Iran seals off the Strait of Hormuz and I think it will never be realized.”

From a temporary point of view the Iranina commander is correct.  Iran has bulked up on land to sea naval missles and advanced naval mines.  Some of these mines are rocket assisted, which allows them to be planted on the outer approaches to the Persian Gulf in deeper waters.  This type of bottom laying mine can take some time to find and destroy.

They also have a variety of diesal and midget submarines that could cause all sorts of mischeif within the Gulf until they were hunted down.

In the past the United States has oporated its carriers within the Gulf, but that would be a fairly risky proposition given the firepower that Iran might have on hand.

The Gulf Region is a net importer of foods.  Finding alternate routes for that cargo will also be expensive.
So while, the action likely would be was the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Much like the Japanese, the Iranians may decide that if they are going to go down, they are not going to go down without a fight.

In any case Iran is clearly worried (from the NYT piece):
One measure of the effects, however, is that the Iranian leadership is clearly concerned. Already the Iranian currency is plummeting in value against the dollar, and there are rumors of bank runs.

"Iran's economic problems seem to be mounting and the whole economy is in a state of suspended expectation," said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. "The regime keeps repeating that they're not going to be impacted by the sanctions. That they have more money than they know what to do with. The lady doth protest too much."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Chinese scale occupy movement

We posted a little earlier on potential issues in Russia looking a little ugly for the current crop of ruling elite, and it has since turned ugly.  We noted economic problems in China recently, and they also seem to be playing out poorly.

Tom Lasseter, McClatchy, 15 December 2011 (hat tip: NC)

WUKAN, China — It's the Chinese Communist Party's nightmare in miniature: Locals stage protests against their land being taken away by shady real estate deals, police respond with heavy-handed tactics and suddenly, with years of frustration and allegations of official corruption bottled up, an entire village erupts in open revolt.

The main road leading into town has been blocked by a police checkpoint on one end, and at the other by dozens of villagers manning a tall barricade of tree branches and boards with nails sticking out.

Authorities have made their escape from the town of 20,000 and are nowhere to be seen. McClatchy was able to sneak a brave reporter into the village.

The village scene as dusk fell Thursday seemed to partly rebut Chinese officials' long-standing argument that without tightly controlled governance all would be chaos. Life seemed almost normal in Wukan. Men sat around card tables. Young people wandered the sidewalks telling jokes and laughing.

There were worries about how long food supplies would last, but a few grocery stands were open with no sign of looting.

Standing outside the empty police station's gates, a 17-year-old surnamed Lin explained that security officers in the village caused more trouble than they saved.

"It doesn't matter that there are no police here," said Lin, a thin youth wearing a black and white scarf. "When they were here, they had no sense of responsibility."

Speaking of causing more trouble than they are worth, we have our own version here Metro [D.C] begins random bag inspections (Ann Scott Tyson and Mark Berman, Washington Post, 21 December 2011’ also hat tip : NC). But let’s not get distracted by our own fascist tendencies, let’s stay focused on the real fascists.

There is a Bloomberg piece that notes that there are 500 mass incidents (strike, riot, protest, etcetera) a day in China (I won’t link, because it seems to have been ambushed by a redirecting ad).  On a more specific note:

China Digital Times, 13 December 2011 (they are quoting a Forbes piece.)

The problems in the export belt have triggered the ongoing series of strikes and protests, often numbering a thousand workers or more, in both the Pearl River delta in the south and the Yangtze River delta in the middle of the country. These large-scale demonstrations, in great cities like Shanghai and out-of-the-way locations such as Anji, are occurring when workers do not normally take to the streets.

Some factory owners say that conditions are more difficult now than they were in 2008, at the beginning of the global downturn. If recent history is any guide, the protests in China are about to become even larger, more violent, and more numerous after the country’s marks the Lunar New Year next month.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Collapse of Empires: The Dorset

I was watching a Blogginheads TV  posting, when one of the discusion participants, Jessa Gamble, mentioned the demise of the Dorset people at the hands of the Inuit.  When I started looking at it a little bit, surprise! There was a post by Jesse Gamble on the very subject.

Jesse Gamble from Blogginheads TV
The Dorset are not an Empire in any sort of traditional sense.  They are the people of the Canadian and Alaskan far north before the arrival of the Inuit (Thule - Eskimos) .  They are a rare prehistoric culture to acutally make it (barely) into history, as the Vikings showed up at one end of their territory, as they were being invaded on the other side by the Inuit.

Dorset culture and history is divided into four periods: the Early (which began around 500 BCE), Middle, Late (starting around CE 800), and Terminal (CE 1000 to 1500) phases. The Terminal phase was already in progress when the Thule entered the Canadian Arctic, migrating east from Alaska. It is probably closely related to the onset of the Medieval Warm Period, which started to warm the Arctic considerably around AD 800. With the warmer climates, the sea ice became less predictable and was isolated from the High Arctic.

The Dorset were highly adapted to living in a very cold climate, and much of their food came from hunting sea mammals through holes in the ice. The massive decline in sea-ice which the Medieval Warm Period produced would have had a devastating impact upon their way of life. They seem to have had great difficulty adapting to this change. They apparently followed the ice north. During the Late and Terminal periods, they concentrated their settlements in the High Arctic...Most of the evidence demonstrates that by 1500 they had essentially disappeared.
That is one story.  The other story is that the Inuit (Thule -Eskimos) killed them.

Jessa Gamble, The Last Word on Nothing 16 February 2011

When the Vikings came to the Arctic in the tenth century, they encountered the Dorset, whom they called Skraelings. “They do not know the use of iron, but employ walrus tusks as missiles and sharpened stones in place of knives,” reads the Historia Norvegiae, a 12th century Norse text. “When they are struck with a weapon their wounds turn white and they do not bleed.” As the Norse wore cloth, rather than the more blade-resistant animal skins of the Dorset, they may have been puzzled by these bloodless wounds they inflicted.
Then came whale hunters from Alaska. Ancestral Inuit brought along dog-sleds, umiaks and a tradition of warfare. When they encountered the Dorset people, the Inuit oral history recounts killing them and driving them away from their camps, taking occupation of the land.
Her post goes on to note (with some genetic testing to back it up) that one small groupof the Dorset, Sadlermiut, took up residence in Northern Hudson Bay islands of Walrus, Coats and Southampton. This group was virtually wiped out from a case of contagious dysentary from whalers that landed at their islands in 1901, with just a few survivors being adopted by the local Inuit.
The key point that allowed the Inuit to even reach the Dorset, is the warming period that opened up the ocean sufficiently to allow the boat using Inuit and Norse to travel into the previously frozen over area.   As we know from Jared Diamond's story, and the better Brian Fagan one, is that the Norse left again when it got cold again and the Inuit stayed.
Arctic Cultures, 900-1500 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Collapse of Empires: Mesa Verde Culture - The Anasanzi

This discussion grew from another discussion on collapse in the American Southwest prehistoric societies and its relationship to our currant drought situation there.

To keep that post from getting too long, I am breaking out the discussion of some of the individual societies/empires that were part of a larger concurrent collapse.  Usually when I am doing a "collapse of an empire" post it is of a lesser breed to expand the discussion beyond the  Rome - Maya examples endlessly offered.  That is not exactly the case here.  The collapse of the Anasanzi (also identified as of, or within, the Mesa Verde Culture) is maybe only one step down in the collapse-fame category.

The area occupied by this culture is indicated below, and is from an excellent summary article here:

The ebb and flow of people within the culture is confusing.  You had various complex agricultural settlements that over the very long period of time discussed, greatly changed their settlement pattern based on various internal and external changes:  many of which can only be guessed at based on the architectural record.

What you can see is that there was a dramatic drop in the population somewhere after 1100 A.D or 1200 A.D.   This site, using the term "Chaco society" (of Chaco Canyon), puts the causal drought at 1130 A.D.  At that point, an with further droughts in the 13th century A.D., their were massive territorial and population contraction of what were to eventually become the Pueblo. 

You will note that there is a drop off at the same time that the Wari, and the Tiwanku Empires fell apart, and there was a drop of in the Mississippian Culture at this time as well.

These broad area collapses across such a broad area, and coincide with long term weather patterns complicate the story of (every doomers favorite) Joseph Tainter's complexity collapse, and also Peter Turchin's biologically derived (cliodynamics) modeling.  John Michael Greer's Catabolic Collapse, although maybe a little more flexible, to my mind is not successful because it leaves too much power within the hands of human agency. Is it truer to say they collapsed because of the cost of maintaining their capital stock  ( "M(p)" as it were), or that we notice because they built up the capital stock in the first place.  Is it not fair to say that when modern humans are re-settling late gglacial period Scandinavia,  that the original culture has died out and been replaced.  It seems a little unfair to say that the first people don't count because they did not leave an Eiffel Tower behind (unless it was in ice-sculpture form) before they vanished.

I don't think that there theories are made null and void.  It just seems as if there is a dimension to the problem that our biblical ancestors seemed to have a better understanding of.  When the God(s) get angry, and you are dealt a poor hand, your time is up.  When your time is up, your time is up.  You can be complex.  You can be simple.  You can be numerous.  You can few in numbers.  When the volcano blows, when the earth shakes, when the rain stops, your time is up.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Collapsing Empires: American Southwest

There is a long article (Tomgram) by William deBuys at  TomDispatch.  . It discusses in three parts the continuing and coming drought in the American Southwest. I am only touching on the third part of his long and excellent essay.

Mr. deBuys is the author of a new book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (I am using the TomDispatch Amazon link intentionally).

Coming to a Theater Near You: The Greatest Water Crisis in the History of Civilization
William deBuys, TomDispatch, 4 December 2011.

Drought affects people differently from other disasters. After something terrible happens -- tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes -- people regularly come together in memorable ways, rising above the things that divide them. In a drought, however, what is terrible is that nothing happens. By the time you know you’re in one, you’ve already had an extended opportunity to meditate on the shortcomings of your neighbors. You wait for what does not arrive. You thirst. You never experience the rush of compassion that helps you behave well. Drought brings out the worst in us.

There is something in the way of a tautology how this reaction is decribed.  A variaty of ancient irragation and aqueducts displayed impressive cooperative effort and engineering to alleviate their societies water issues.  However, from the point of modern civilization, the his point is well taken.

Drought, as he notes is not new to the Southwest:
Because tree rings record growing conditions year by year, the people who study them have been able to reconstruct climate over very long spans of time. One of their biggest discoveries is that droughts more severe and far longer than anything known in recent centuries have occurred repeatedly in the American Southwest. The droughts of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, of the 1950s, and of the period from 1998 to 2004 are remembered in the region, yet none lasted a full decade.

By contrast, the drought that brought the civilization of the ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, centered at Chaco Canyon, to its knees in the twelfth century, by contrast, lasted more than 30 years. The one that finished off Mesa Verdean culture in the thirteenth century was similarly a “megadrought.”…

Much of the Southwest is marginal land for agricultural production.

If you use sophisticated irrigation and water retention methods the land becomes less marginal. The more sophisticated the methods, the less marginal they are. You can see something similar in Of course the nature of that margin for error is not only dependant on how much you can consistently produce from the land, but also what sort of population load you are trying to carry. Very few people who live in the Southwest (as a percentage of population) are involved in farming or animal husbandry. If everyone not involved in those activities moved somewhere else, water usage would drop to the point where the margins of water usage would be much larger.

Something can be seen in the earlier history of Europe. The areas that hug the Mediterranean were always very productive. The Mediterranean climate zone for agricultural production often pushed well up into what is now Germany and France. But occasionally, and for extended periods of time, weather patterns would shift, and the middle European latitudes could no longer grow the same amount of crops. And people would start moving. You would have the Dorian invasions, the Sea People, the Celts, to name just a few.

In the Americas, agricultural products started in South or Central America and tended to travel North. First was squash, and latter corn. The American Southwest is an obvious early destination for these crops.

From Wikipedia we can see that some of these droughts were very wide spread.  In the case of the Mississippi culture, we have discussed them before.

The ancient Pueblos attained a cultural "Golden Age" between about 900 and 1150. During this time, generally classed as Pueblo II Era, the climate was relatively warm and rainfall mostly adequate. Communities grew larger and were inhabited for longer periods of time. Highly specific local traditions in architecture and pottery emerged, and trade over long distances appears to have been common. Domesticated turkeys appear.

After approximately 1150, North America experienced significant climatic change in the form of a 300-year drought called the Great Drought. This also led to the collapse of the Tiwanaku civilization around Lake Titicaca in present-day Bolivia. The contemporary Mississippian culture also collapsed during this period.

And note, if I am understanding this correctly, this is the lesser of the two droughts that wiped out the Southwest agriculturalists, as the Pueblo were able to hang on as a remnant at the periphery.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Collapse of Empires: the Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku is an Ancient civilization/culture found in what is now Bolivia from 300 AD to somewhere around 1000AD. There was clearly an empirical aspect to their civilization as they encorporated (rather than absorbing) surrounding groups as time went on.  On the map, the Andes look small because they sit next to the enormous Brazil-Amazon River basin, but as I noted earlier when talking about the Wari, it is the combined size of California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Montana.  Using a rough scale map of the Andes and comparing it to our map below, the Tiwanaku Empire very roughly encompasses about 600,000 square kilometers (232,000 square miles).  This would make it larger than France at 547,000 square kilometers.  Not Rome, but a lot more than a city state.

There largest city, may have had as many 30,000 inhabitants, and the Empire as a whole almost 1.5 million people. I am using the upper figures because they used a very labor intensive, but very effective method of “flooded-raised field” agriculture.

Though labor-intensive, suka kollus produce impressive yields. While traditional agriculture in the region typically yields 2.4 metric tons of potatoes per hectare, and modern agriculture (with artificial fertilizers and pesticides) yields about 14.5 metric tons per hectare, suka kollu agriculture yields an average of 21 tons per hectare.

I bring this point up because earlier, in a very different context, we had been discussing the manpower-fuel tradeoffs in intensive agriculture.

The Tiwanaku had some very impressive architecture built out of the enormous stone blocks. To the untrained-eye at least, it looks very similar to the latter Incan architecture.

But of course it did not last.  From Wikipedia:

The elites' power continued to grow along with the surplus of resources until about 950. At this time a dramatic shift in climate occurred, as is typical for the region. A significant drop in precipitation occurred in the Titicaca Basin, with some archaeologists venturing to suggest a great drought. As the rain became less and less many of the cities furthest away from Lake Titicaca began to produce fewer crops to give to the elites. As the surplus of food dropped, the elites' power began to fall. Due to the resiliency of the raised fields, the capital city became the last place of production, but in the end even the intelligent design of the fields was no match for the weather. Tiwanaku disappeared around 1000 because food production, the empire's source of power and authority, dried up. The land was not inhabited again for many years. In isolated places, some remnants of the Tiwanaku people, like the Uros, may have survived until today.

They were neighbors of the  Wari, who we have discussed earlier. The Wari were north of them, and we have described them as a classic expand-implode empire. The time frame for the rise of the Wari is similar to the Tiwanaku. The Map below shows what is known as the Middle Horizon, with the Wari (Huari) in violet and the Tiwanaku in blue.

The Middle Horizon- Tiwanaku in blue (from Wikipedia)
One final point to bring up.  They did hold on at the edges presumably to be absorbed by he Incans latter.  But they are another example of a large cultural entity, that lasted for hundreds (about 700) of years, and we don't even know what they called themselves.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Real Chinese opinions on their economy

What do people in China say when they think there talk is not recorded.  Well we have Larry Lang, chair professor of Finance at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Matthew Robertson, Epoch Times, 15 November 2011 (Hat tip: NC).

China’s economy has a reputation for being strong and prosperous, but according to a well-known Chinese television personality the country’s Gross Domestic Product is going in reverse.
Larry Lang, chair professor of Finance at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in a lecture that he didn’t think was being recorded that the Chinese regime is in a serious economic crisis—on the brink of bankruptcy. In his memorable formulation: every province in China is Greece.

He cites five problem areas:

  1. Too much debt. Adding both the central government, local governments, and state-owned business debt you come up with 36 trillion yuan (US$5.68 trillion) in debt.
  2. The actual inflation rate, versus the published one of 6.2%, is closer to 16%
  3. There is to much excess capacity for an economy were only 30% of the economic activity is private consumption. The recent Managers Index report is at a new low off 50.7 which means that rather than growing, manufacturing barely maintaining its current levels..
  4. Rather than the listed growth of 9%, China’s GDP has decreased by 10%. He said that the bloated figures come from the dramatic increase in infrastructure construction, including real estate development, railways, and highways each year (accounting for up to 70 percent of GDP in 2010).
  5. Finally, taxes are excessive. Chinese business taxes (including direct and indirect taxes) were at 70 percent of earnings. The individual tax rate sits at 81.6 percent.

He goes on to note:

Once the “economic tsunami” starts, the regime will lose credibility and China will become the poorest country in the world, Lang said.

Note that with enough self denial evidence of a downturn can be ignored for a long time.  Employment is generally one of the last items hit in a downturn.  Also many of the initial problems will hit one particular secture, and can be seen as an anomoly against the background of the rest of the healthy economy, rather than as the harbringer of things to come.  In the United States, an ecomony driven by the housing bubble barely noted the peak of housing starts in August of 2005, and continued to speak of a soft landing well into 2008.  We in the United States even take it so far as to manufacture upturns:  upturns that generate little additional employment.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Retrieved from the Future: A Review

John Symour's  Retrieved from the Future I have seen billed as the first peak oil novel: to my mind more precisely, the first apocalypse-in-progress peak oil novel.  Published in 1996, it is set primarily in a cul de sac farming area along the coast of East Anglia some time in the first decade of so of the 21st century..


John Seymour (12 June 1914 – 14 September 2004) was key figure in the British post-war self sufficiency movemen and a prolific authort. In his twenties he move to Africa and made a living in a variety of fashions including  living with  Bushmen.  During the Second World War he served in East AFtica as an invatruy officer, first in Ethiopia ant then in Burma.  After the war he made his living on a Thames sailing barge.  Some of his experience on the barge are used within this book.  He married a Dutch artist, and as their children grew older decided to settle down on what today might be referred to as a homesteading farm in Wales and later Irleand.  He was living with his daughters family on his old farm at the time of his death.

John Seymour was not a regular writer of fiction:

The post-oil novel: a celebration!
Frank Kaminski, Energy Bulletin 11 May 2008

The inspiration for Seymour’s foray into speculative realms was his conviction that our modern “Age of Plunder,” as he called it, was inevitably coming to an end. Seymour saw the Age of Plunder as a natural result of the Age of Reason, “the Age in which humankind decided that it knew better than God.” In a getting-and-spending spree of unprecedented greed and ruthlessness, humans had exhausted the forests, seas, soil, air, and (of course) the cheap, easy oil. This epoch of plunder was doomed because the world system had grown too large and unwieldy to manage, and because there was little left to plunder. It would be followed by either an Age of Chaos or an Age of Healing. We ordinary citizens could help effect an Age of Healing through our everyday choices, from refusing to work for the plunderers or shop in their supermarkets, to working for a decentralist economy, to participating in local politics and buying or growing our food locally. (Source noted:  John Seymour, “The Age of Healing.” Resurgence 173 (1995):10-11)

The novel starts off in a little tiny corner of coastal East Anglia - the portion of England that is northeast of London and across the narrow seas from Belgium and the Netherlands rather than France.  It is written as a set of short recollections of what happened when it all fell apart.
After a decade of slow oil induced decline, there is a ferociously cold winter and revolution in Mexico and the Middle East have caused already tight oil supplies to begin drying up.  Without the fossil fuels to make fertilizer, run machinery, or transport to market the United States begins to stumble first, and with it goes much of the worlds excess food supplies.  In Britain there are a variety of strikes and disruptions.  A combination of protests, sabotage, and accidents put an end to hopes for an nuclear energy age.   The Prime Minister gives a speech of encouragement telling everyone to stay home while it all gets sorted out (retrospectively reminiscent of G.W. Bush's speech post 9-11 speech telling everyone to shop).  It is the last anyone hears from her as the final collapse sets in.

At the start of the book it seems as if we are on a pace to begin a cozy little adventure of small self sustaining community working together to start a new world while fighting off some bandits.  A blander version of Maleville possibly. 

But than the Army shows up. and it is a rather rough uncivilized military.   They demobilize the local militia that had been keeping order.  The local attempts to divide up a small portion of the available local land to grow gardens is plowed under at the behest of the manager of the local agri-corp manager.   They begin rescuing unfortunate young girls who would otherwise go hungry and let them stay with the troops.

Eventually a little revolution starts.  It is a fun enough little revolution.  The guerrillas have a Carl Gustav 54 mm recoilless rocket launcher to blow up all sorts of fun stuff.  The rebels have a huge advantage in knowing the local terrain intimately.  However, as there is only half-a-dozen of them, the feel is a bit Red Dawn - like at times.

The book brings up a number of issues that are worth noting.  First, that even though oil is still coming into Britain,, eventually the refineries begin shutting down because they cannot feed there workers.  In many areas, there is complete chaos and anarchy.  In other areas, a variety of military units take over and keep the peace.  As martial law is declared, and then the civil government collapses, they become answerable to none.  They do help keep some stability in some areas.  And they have access to whatever limited fuel reserves are available, but in the long run there fire power is used as much to hinder progress as to help it.  Finally, much like with Malevil, the rural folk are extremely suspicious of the urban folk, and view their efforts to stabilize the situation and keep people alive as attempts to turn them back into serfs.  As the book is written, they are more-or-less correct in their suspicious.

The book is entertaining.  The action scenes are somewhat stylized and eccentric at times. A Carl Gustav is a dangerous weapon, but it is very unclear why their opponents seem to be so constantly annihilated by such small forces. The effectiveness and speed at which weapons act is, as is typical, too great. The sailing barge scenes early on are very good. The view of a collapse from a maritime captains perspective is unique.  It is an extreme cozy.  Based on the quote above, it is obvious that the author is very much in the Kunstler School of wanting to return to a quaint 19th century world.  As I have noted before, cozies tend to make fun reads: alls well that ends well.

For our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings (1 to 7 with 7 being high) we will start with grittiness/realism.  It is not an easy call.  There is a certain amount of day-to-day reality, with some difficult decisions faced, but most of the trouble is generated by the evil corporate agribusiness and the military.    It is real, it is a dated version of our contemporary world, so I am going to say that it is an above average 5.

It's readability is very high.  It moves along very quickly. The character perspectives chosen are interesting ones, and they are generally a likable bunch.   In my view it is a 7.

The late John Seymour

Monday, December 19, 2011

Holding Their Own: A Review

Joe Nobody’s Holding Their Own is a near future (2015) relatively slow apocalypse-in-progress novel set in a suburb about 25 miles outside Houston, Texas. 

The author wishes to remain anonymous, but on his amazon biography it notes that he is involved in consulting and training with the U.S. military, and the Department of Homeland Security.   He is obviously a firearms enthusiast.  He apparently has become involved in the personal security measures of certain clients, and this has derived a series of books relating to this issue.
At the start of the novel, the U.S. is going through a second recession (presuming  of course that the 2008 recession ever ended) and gasoline is well over $6 a gallon.  Employment is over 20% and you have a great depression like cyclical downward spiral.  The first 25% or so of the book details the various agents of the collapse.   It is a combination of poor political decisions, poor economics, and an international crises brought on by Iranian terrorism.  It is the only novel I have seen that actually features a plausible EMP-strike: and it does not affect the people in the novel.
Realistically, the urban centers tend to burn down not because people willfully set them on fire, but because accidents and mishaps cannot be controlled when layoffs have stretched service staffing to the breaking point.  Some of his incidents tend to be on the spectacular side, but all it would take is the modern version of Ms. O’Leary’s cow to get the job done.
As noted, the initial setting is a suburb about 25 miles outside of Houston.  Based on stated concerns about hurricanes, distance, and a few other clues, I am guessing that it was modeled on one of the partiall-built subdivisions of Kemah, Texas. This of course has a lot of resemblance to the cul de sac development in David Crawford’s Lights Out which was set in the suburbs of San Antonio, Texas.  There are a few other notes in the book, not always major ones that seem to indicate that the author is a fan of some of the post apocalyptic genre.  Another example, is the death of a periferal character from dehydration when their elevator get stuck in permanant power outage (as in The Dead and Gone)
Example of a cul de sac partially built development in Kemah.  The land is very flat and open: probably why Texas writers love the Barrett so much.
As we move further into the personal disaster portion of the novel, one interesting touch is that the initial reaction is very similar to that of a Hurricane threat.  People rush out and get gasoline, and then the middle class pretty much hunker down with their little generators to keep their food cold. As power goes out, and information becomes limited, there is a considerable delay before the scale of the disaster sets in.  In the case of this particular development, the lack of a through street allows the action to develop a little more slowly.  In this case the neighborhood does not realize that mayhem has erupted until they leave the neighborhood to go to the police station.  Once the action gets going, it goes from 0 to 60 mph in about half a chapter.  Soon it gets so hot, that our heroic couple decides on a belated bugout to the desert reaches of Texas near the Mexican border.
And I will stop our narrative description here.

In a society where maybe 1% of the population has military experience, it is generally the case that 80% of the heroes in these types of novels will not only have military experience, but extensive tactical experience as well.  Our hero, Bishop, is all of these, and a competitive shooter as well.  He combines these skills with impulse control problems, needlessly getting himself into some difficult spots even before the stuff hits the fan (SHTF).  He also seems to have a fondness for heavily overt sexual innuendo with his wife.  It reminds me of the constant cutesy talk in Donna Callea's  New Coastal Times.  I realize that some people talk this way, but it is the perfect device to make a character annoying:  more useful with a sidekick or flunky, than the main Ramboesque hero.  Take it from the expert, strong and silent works better.  As the novel moves along the "witty" dialogue fortunately lets up some - or maybe I just got used to it.

The author fully buys into the modern cult of the special ops - sniper.  These of course are very useful skills in a combat setting as far as it goes.  Within the story line there is a lot of aggressive action, as in either a Western or a in a Stephen Hunter sniper type novel.  This makes for an exiting story, but is odd in a  novel supposedly written as a primer to survival in a societal collapse. Stories of the "Wild West" and pioneer settlers are often quite exciting.  But the actually reality is another story.  Most survivors are not going to have much of a story to tell.  That is why they survived.  The exciting stuff happened to other people, and a handful of those people survived to tell an exciting story.
Here is an example from the story.  The hero and another special ops friend are going to mess with a bad guys compound.  In this particular case they were not able to do much scouting and know very little about the particulars of the  compounds defense.  They do have enhance night vision (not IR) and are smart enough to go in at night.. They have a rough idea of how many people are in this group of bad guys.

The two men circle around exploring the compound area a number of times.  They eventually spot a suspicious location.  They sneak up on the location, and feel around in the dirt for the soft soil.  Than they stab blindly through the cardboard (why cardboard?) of what ends up being a spider hole that an  ex-marine trained sniper is hiding in - killing him noiselessly and alerting none of the other guards.  As this particular action progresses, we find that  the bad guys, who have set up some incredibly intricate traps, cannot be bothered to sandbag their hidden blockhouse:  Impossible? No.  Likely?... Again, it makes for a lot of fun in a story, but a story that is advising people on how to survive a violent chaotic world should go something like this:  Get lots of food, and hide.  Don't make any noise.  If you see bad guys run away.  Avoid hidden snipers in spider holes, don't attack fortified bunkers, etc.
The good guys in  an effort to get across a highway choke point,  are willing to take on multiple-groups of numerous bad guys, in what should be reinforced/protected buildings.  It would not be fun, but with those odds against you, wouldn't you be better off hiking your stuff across (they have a gasoline can)  deserted portion of the highway and finding a vehicle that ran out of fuel on the other side? 
So what was my general assessment.  The first quarter of the book, the setup, was O.K. if mostly superfluous.  The action portions had some fun moments.  There are some nifty little ideas thrown in there.  It is hillarious to here the hero talk about his careful battery management program after having assaulted a couple of bunkers, and a small unit of mounted (as in Bradleys) infantry.  The author loves mousetrap triggered shotgun shell traps even more (maybe) than Rawles loves gelled gasoline in a bottle.  It is the Wild Wild West version of survival fiction.  A little more plausible, and a lot more tactical thought than Nova's American Apocalypse series:  no Nordic Gods. 

Some of his advise is a little debatable.  Having worked in construction, I am a little doubtful that under less than ideal conditions someone would be able to produce Hollywood backdrop style props to hide vehicle sized objects behind.  Those types of illusions can work, but they usually require careful control of lighting and the angle of view.  He makes a big deal about how hollow point rounds make the relatively light 5.56 NATO round (M-16, M-4 and civilian AR-15) more deadly than the full metal jacket that the military uses.  Then his characters spend a lot of time shooting through semi-solid cover that hollow points have a hard time with:  that is why one of the Police TAP rounds that Hornady makes is intended for barrier penetration.   They also make the round with "low flash" powder to prevent self-blinding at night: something that does not seem to bother our heroes.  Bad guys (or redshirt good guys: sorry gramps)  usually die quickly, the hero gets injured: flesh wounds and cracked ribs.  So, in net, I found it to be entertaining, but with serious reservations.  If it had simply been billed as apocalyptic adventure novel (rather than a primer), my expectations would have been different.

It should be noted, that while the novel is a complete story, the ending clearly threatens a sequel.

For our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings (1 to 7 with 7 being highest), we will start with realism/grittiness.  The quality of the collapse scenario does not count toward the rating, but in this case it would be a plus.  While you could never call any particular detailed collapse story likely, it is certainly plausible.  The book deals with near future technologies, and very real tactical problems in a contemporary setting.  If I questioned the "realism" above, it is because it claims to be a primer.  Within the context of the rest of the books within the class, it does very well.  If I start taking off points for morality-driven firearms damage, most of our action-driven novels would be dwelling in the cellar.  There is nothing that is trying to be fanciful, so I will give it a reluctant 7.

For readability, the book scores surprising well for what appears to be a first time effort at fiction.  Particularly in the early portions of the book, it wanders a little at times.  The double entendres are a matter of taste, but don't wast too much paper space.  I am going to say that it is a 6.  The action scenes are set up well, and are far more coherent and as well paced as any I recall within the realistic-ction-apocalypse genre. 
Joe Nobody (photo courtesy of LinkedIn)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

China Tidal Wave: A Review

Wang Lixiong's China Tidal Wave, translated by Anton Platero, is an apocalypse-in-progress political novel set in China detailing the slow disintegration of the country during a period of internal political and economic stress that leads to civil war and a slowly escalating nuclear war.

Wang Lixiong was born in 1953 in Changchun in Manchuria. Sent away for re-education during the Cultural Revolution, he began to write poetry. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, after studying automobile mechanics, he worked in car factories in Manchuria and in Wuhan. His interest in multi-level democracy, a prominent feature of the book, developed in his studies of the mid-1970s.  In 1978, Wang participated in the Wall of Democracy movement and published his first short story in the magazine Jintian (Today). In 1980, he left the Wuhan car factory and devoted himself to writing. He wrote film scripts and published his first novel in 1983.  Rather adventurous in spirit, in 1984 he floated down 1,200 kilometers of the Yellow River on a raft made from the inner tubes of truck tires, passing through areas inhabited by Tibetans, which got him interested in the Tibetan question. In 1991, he published China Tidal Wave (Yellow Peril).  The book was banned by the Communists, but bootlegged copies were popular.  Given the enormous population, being read by even a small percentage of the Chinese population would make it the most popular title we have reviewed.

The book's original 1991, Chinese name was  Yellow Peril a term that was likely dropped in the translation due to the racial stereotypes that that term brings with it.  The author used the pseudonym, Bao Mi (Secret) to avoid arrest.  Oddly enough the yellow peril is discussed within the book and at first refers to the Yellow River and flooding problems, but later directly refers to the outspreading masses of Chinese refugees entering other countries: not far from what the meaning of the original stereo type.

The book starts off with the Yellow River seeing a one-thousand year flood and causing an enormous grain shortage in the country. At the same time, there is continued rioting between pro-democracy forces, and workers groups.  You also have a considerable amount of tension between the newly prosperous Southern parts of the country (across the straights from Taiwan), and the more traditional and economically left behind Northern sections.  There is a vibrant Green Movement that is also striving to make its voice heard.

The book is not simplistically plotted.  It puts The Big "R" and his NATO Invasions. to shame.

 There are two strands are woven throughout the book.  One is that only a multi-level direct democracy will make the stable long term decisions to run a diverse large country like China.  Secondly, a movement away from individualist commercial expansion is necessary if China is not to use up all its resources.  Even if one does not agree with all of the authors points, the arguments are well thought out and cannot be dismissed lightly.

Another characteristic of the book is that the various characters within the book are very deeply explored.  Many of them die along the way, but it is very rare that we do not get a good understanding of them before they perish.  Even the very worst of the bad guys have their positive points.  In the few sections where the author describes the U.S. response to an oncoming rush (in the 100s of millions) of Chinese refugees he pretty much nails the likely response.

There are a few science fictional elements.  There is some fighting described, but the author is not trying to come across as a weapons/combat expert.  The "tidal wave" weapon that the United State uses, is not detailed buy likely is a hydrogen bomb, or series of bombs, set off deep below the oceans surface.  At times the action is brutal.  Nuclear weapons are used, and the justification for their use is fairly clear.  In fact, in many instances their use is fairly restrained.

Another interesting point of comparison is that the Chinese have a much deeper and recent history of famine.

Before it is all done people are digging up their gardens to find worms to eat.  People eat the maggots from the dead, and play dead to lure in the crows that peck at the bodies.

Later, an environmentalist who seems to be partly modeled on some of the authors experiences, but is also an ambigous good-guy, bad-guy figure tells someone:

It almost makes you optomist for the hopes of the United States in similar circmumstances: we have lots of bark to eat.

The Yellow Peril, which was the original title of the book, is what happens when 1.6 billion people have nowhere to go.  They hit the road and head toward wealthier less populated areas mostly.  The reverse colonial land grab mentality is rather entertaining at times.  Think of it this way, what happens when you send over 300 unarmed refugees to the United States and potentially double its population.   Most modern countries don't want to kill enough innocent unarmed people to make the Nazi holocaust look like a multi-car pile up on the interstate.  Given that within the context of the novel, most of the recipiants already have a little blood on their hand from interfering with China's internal problems, it makes for a very dicey situation. It is a little embarasing that an author, who at least at the time I don't think had ever been out of his country, has a more nuanced approach within half a chapter, than many American born apocalypse-in-pr0gress authors do within a whole book.
I did enjoy the novel.  It was a very long 526 pages, but changed scenes and point of view frequently enough to keep it from getting too stale.  The dialog translates a little woodenly at times, but the cultural situation is so odd at times, that you barely notice.  Being first published in 1991, the scenario is a little dated.  But with a few adjustments it is not a great stretch to see that a confluence of catastrophes could easily snowball out of control in China. 

Now for our descriptive (versus qualitative) ratings:

How realistic, how gritty was it?  It is writtin at about the same political level as Directive 51, which removes the characters from the day to day issues of survival.  They are not ignored but are also not always present.  There is a religious cult leader who appears to be a political manipulator at times, but also appears to have real skill as well.  There are some invented items, and a Red October -like submarine.  On a scale of 1 to 7 (7 being highest) I am going to put it at the mid-point and say it is a 4.  It is not high realism, but it is a pretty grim plausible story as well.  Although the plausibility of the collapse scenario is not a factor in "realism", it would score high well there also.

For ease of readiblity, it moves along fairly well.  There is a little bit of repetitive politicizing about multi-level democracy.  The translation is well done and reads smoothly.  There is a short list of characters at the front, but with only a couple of exceptions, I found them pretty easy to remember.  As I noted it is a long book.  I am going to go out on a limb and say that even for a tranlated book of this length, it is still an easier read than most and say it is a 5.

The fundamental difference now is the dimple fact that our population is now 1.3 billion.  No collapse of a state has ever involved even a third of that number of people.  Collapse means that all systems of production, distribution and transport are wiped out. Each person will have to fend for himself and find enough to eat.  Everything will come done to the basic question of food.

China's present size and environmental conditions enable us to feed our population; but only on condition that we have highly organized and efficient system, working at utmost pressure and extracting natural resources to the absolute limit.  This has to be supplemented by organized international trade.  Natural disaster, social disorder, civil war, separatism, the cutting off of international trade- any one of these things can lead to famine.  If these disasters all threaten us at once, famine is bound to seep away all social organization, and that will drastically reduce the amount we can extract from natural resources. Howe will we feed the population?  nature can provide wild fruits, birds and animals, roots and bark, which in the past have enabled perhaps several hundred million to survive by wandering all over the country in search of food.  In the past the collapse of the state has not led to the obliteration of the Chinese people. Now the situation is very different. The gifts of nature have now been very severely depleted, while the population has increased enormously, This terrifying discrepancy is several times more serious than at any time in the past, and will bring about a disaster several times worse.

She Ge noticed a display of old books about famines in Chinese history.  It was explained to him that a certain recurring phrase 'exchange children for eating' meant that people dying of hunger but who count not bring themselves to eat their own children, would exchange them for other people's children. Some old books also mentioned that the market price for meat of 'two-legged sheep' , far cheaper than mutton, was in fact a typically Chinese euphemism for human flesh.  page 151.