Food spikes, foreclosures, and cultural freefall

Has it really been three weeks since my last post? A glance at the date stamp on that previous post indicates the answer is yes.

I’m now four weeks back into my teaching job, and this, in conjunction with a couple of extra-job responsibilities, is eating up nearly all of my time. Alas, the blog must take back seat for awhile. My posts will be sporadic for the foreseeable future, although I will certainly be prompt with all Holy Horrors-related news.

For now, here’s a handful of recent headlines and news items that have leapt out at me. For best effect they should be read in conjunction with some of my previous posts about contemporary cultural and economic matters, such as” U.S subprime losses have detonated a global financial markets disaster,” “The sadness of America and the need for a new consciousness,” “Potent Passages from May 2007,” “More Potent Passages from May 2007,” “Doomerism and Realism,” my various reading logs, and other relevant entries.

N.B. I could expand this list of recent news items to several dozen similar ones if I had the time and inclination. The venerable Chinese curse is presently in full force: we’re living in interesting times.

* * * * *

Days of cheap food are over, say suppliers as ingredient cost soars
The Guardian, September 5, 2007
Supermarket pledges to drive down the price of staple goods and help cash-strapped shoppers looked increasingly vulnerable last night after Britain’s biggest food manufacturer insisted even the largest superstore groups would have to stomach higher prices from suppliers that are struggling with steep rises in ingredient costs.

Premier Foods, the group behind Branston Pickle, Oxo, Mr Kipling and Quorn, said a “systemic change” in world ingredient markets, with “violent rises” in many commodities, had heralded a new era, bringing to a close almost 15 years of relatively stable, low inflation.

Finance director Paul Thomas predicted general food ingredient inflation could reach “somewhere as high as 4% to 5%” next year.Chief executive Robert Schofield said: “Over the past 30 years the cost of food as a proportion of disposable income has come down from 30% to less than 10%. It is going to edge back up.”

. . . . Premier said demand from India and China and incentives for farmers to grow biofuels had increased wheat and other commodity prices.

. . . . Demand from the far east and the trend toward biofuels were driving up carbohydrates around the world. “We can’t see, from where we are sitting, that these sorts of pressure are going to go away, so this is not a blip … If you’re buying pasta in Italy it has gone up 25%; if you’re buying tortillas in Mexico it’s gone up; if you’re buying bread in the UK and Europe it has gone up.” There was a knock-on impact on livestock, milk and glucose prices, he added.

* * * * *

Mortgages in foreclosure at record high
Yahoo! Finance, September 6, 2007

The rate of home loans in foreclosure rose to a record high in the second quarter of 2007 as more homeowners in California, Florida and other states could not refinance their adjustable-rate mortgages, a trade group said on Thursday.

The Mortgage Bankers Association said 0.65 percent of loans entered the foreclosure process on a seasonally adjusted basis, 7 basis points higher than the previous quarter and up 22 basis points from a year earlier.

It was the third straight quarter in which the foreclosure rate rose to a record-setting level and the worst is likely still ahead, the MBA said.

“Where we might have suggested only one to three quarters to go, it is likely that has been extended to some degree and we will see delinquencies and foreclosure rise,” said Douglas Duncan, the MBA’s chief economist.

The peak of loan failures might not hit for another year or more as many borrowers face increased payments on their adjustable-rate loans, he said.

* * * * *

Learn from the fall of Rome, U.S. warned
Financial Times, August 14, 2007

The US government is on a ‘burning platform’ of unsustainable policies and practices with fiscal deficits, chronic healthcare underfunding, immigration and overseas military commitments threatening a crisis if action is not taken soon, the country’s top government inspector has warned.

David Walker, comptroller general of the US, issued the unusually downbeat assessment of his country’s future in a report that lays out what he called “chilling long-term simulations”.

These include “dramatic” tax rises, slashed government services and the large-scale dumping by foreign governments of holdings of US debt.

Drawing parallels with the end of the Roman empire, Mr Walker warned there were “striking similarities” between America’s current situation and the factors that brought down Rome, including “declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government”.

“Sound familiar?” Mr Walker said. “In my view, it’s time to learn from history and take steps to ensure the American Republic is the first to stand the test of time.”

Mr Walker’s views carry weight because he is a non-partisan figure in charge of the Government Accountability Office, often described as the investigative arm of the US Congress.

While most of its studies are commissioned by legislators, about 10 per cent – such as the one containing his latest warnings – are initiated by the comptroller general himself.

* * * * *

The end of civilization and the extinction of humanity
by Guy McPherson, professor of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the Unversity of Arizona
Energy Bulletin
, August 29, 2007

[In the words of the author, this piece is the “transcript of a talk I delivered 17 August 2007. It was the keynote address for a conference organized by, and for, students in the University of Arizona’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program”]

Oil supply — at the level of the field, county, state, country, or world — follows a bell-shaped curve; the top of the curve is called “Peak Oil,” or “Hubbert’s Peak.” We passed Hubbert’s Peak for world oil supply and began easing down the other side about two years ago. We’ll fall off the oil-supply cliff next year. Because this country mainlines cheap oil, it is easy to envision the complete collapse of the U.S. economy within a decade. The Great Depression will seem like the good old days when unemployment approaches 100% and inflation is running at 1000% per year.

Obviously, this is a very good thing … for the world’s cultures and species, other than our own. After all, in the name of economic growth we have ripped minerals from the Earth, often bringing down mountains in the process; we have harvested nearly all the old-growth timber on the continent, replacing thousand-year-old giants with neatly ordered plantations of tiny trees; we have hunted species to the point of extinction; we have driven livestock across every almost acre of the continent, baring hillsides and engendering massive erosion; we have plowed large landscapes, transforming fertile soil into sterile, lifeless dirt; we have burned ecosystems and, perhaps more importantly, we have extinguished naturally occurring fires; we have spewed pollution and dumped garbage, thereby dirtying our air, fouling our water, and contributing greatly to the warming of the planet; we have paved thousands of acres to facilitate our movement and, in the process, have disrupted the movements of thousands of species.

As I wrote in one of my recent books, the problem is not that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions — it’s that the road to Hell is paved. We have, to the maximum possible extent allowed by our intellect and never-ending desire, consumed the planet and therefore traded in tomorrow for today. And we keep making these choices, every day, choosing dams over salmon, oil over whales, cars over polar bears, death over life.

And when I say we keep making these choices, I do not mean you and me — we have essentially nothing to do with it — I mean the politicians and CEOs who run this country. They are killing the planet and, when they notice the screams, they turn up the volume on Fox News. Meanwhile, most Americans took the blue pill without really thinking about the consequences. In the wake of these endless insults to our only home, perhaps the biggest surprise is that so many native species have persisted, thus allowing for our continued use and enjoyment.

. . . . Many experts who write about simply one of these issues — Peak Oil — predict complete economic collapse within a decade, followed shortly thereafter by utter chaos and the subsequent death of more than 80% of the world’s population. After all, the exponential curve of human population growth matches perfectly the exponential growth of world energy supply, suggesting that the downturn of the energy curve will cause a large-scale die-off of human beings. And if you think chaos can’t descend on this country, you weren’t paying attention to New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Horrible as that event was, nearly everybody involved knew it was a temporary inconvenience; I’m concerned how people might act when they recognize Peak Oil as a long emergency.

One by one, starting in 2012, the world’s cities will experience permanent blackouts; and once we enter the Dark Age, the Stone Age won’t be too far behind. Bear in mind, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I know the current culture — the culture of make believe, or the culture of death, depending on how deeply you care to think about it — is the worst possible route for most of the planet’s species; as a conservation biologist, I realize the faster and more complete the collapse of Empire, the greater our biological legacy. On the other hand, the paralyzing hand of fear grips me every time I think about Peak Oil; a life in the ivory tower is damned poor preparation for Stone-Age living. Fortunately, I only think about it a few thousand times each day.

. . . . Until very recently, large-scale die-offs were viewed as “normal,” in much the same way we view as “normal” our K-12 system of education, or weekly shopping trips to Safeway, or using a cellular telephone. The description and management of human populations back in the days of the Greek Cynics was oriented along population lines, with relatively little societal regard for individuals. Contrast that perspective with our laser-like focus on individuals. Let’s take a quick look at the Four Horsemen, one at a time. Famine’s as good a place to start as any, considering that my limited understanding of public health tends toward eating … or, eating less.

The years ahead will see a dramatic rise in deaths from starvation, as we become unable to transport vegetables from the Central Valley of California to the American Southwest, or any place else in the country. The inability to retrieve high-fructose corn syrup in the form of cheese doodles and soda pop from the vending machine down the hall won’t hurt us a bit, individually or collectively, but it’s symptomatic of far greater problems. At the population level, starvation is called famine. And famine looms large, right here in the richest country in the history of humanity.

We’ll also see pestilence — what we call disease, when it happens one person at a time — making a big comeback. Cheap oil allows us to sanitize our water, lethally cook harmful organisms, sterilize the surfaces on which we prepare and eat food, and manage many potentially catastrophic diseases. Contemporary American healthcare is completely dependent on ready supplies of cheap oil, for grid-based electrical power, backup generators, and thousands of pieces of equipment we all take for granted, from IVs and syringes to disposable gloves and plastic containers for tossing out contaminated needles and other sharp objects. When the trucks stop running, we won’t even be able to deliver antibiotics, unless ginormous numbers of non-apocalyptic horsemen suddenly appear. I hope society will retain some understanding of germ theory, so you are able to live at least half as long as your grandparents.

Famine and pestilence are two of the Four Horsemen; war and conquest are the other two. Already, resource wars have begun, and they are likely to ratchet up in the near future. The so-called bipartisan Iraqi study group concluded that Operation Iraqi Freedom was conducted in pursuit of black gold. In fact, just to make the acronym transparent, the invasion should have been called Operation Iraqi Liberty.

Regardless of the name of the invasion, it truly was “mission accomplished” for George W. Bush: We ensured ourselves a spot at the OPEC table, while also piratizing … er, I guess I’m supposed to call that privatizing … the oil fields of Iraq for American companies. Although the Oilman in the Oval Office correctly pointed out, in his 2006 State of the Union Address, “America is addicted to oil,” his solution is absurd. Rather than stressing conservation, as a conservative might do, his goal is to find more oil by any means necessary. ‘Cause that’s the way to deal with addiction: find more substance for the addict.

I fear Oil War III is just getting started.

And conquest? That’s just another name for war, albeit without a fight from the vanquished. We’ve done that throughout our history, as have many other nations. I’ve no doubt we’ll continue.

The Four Horsemen are lurking in the background, obscured by the never-ending, irrelevant chatter of the corporate media. Here’s my impression of Fox News: blah blah blah Britney Spears blah blah blah Threat Level Orange blah blah blah Paris Hilton blah blah blah … Fox News: the only national news source without a liberal bias. The corporate media’s weapons of mass distraction notwithstanding, soon enough the Four Horsemen will be riding tall enough for everyone to see. Population-scale rules from two millennia ago will re-assert themselves.



About Matt Cardin


Posted on September 6, 2007, in Economy, Environment & Ecology, Society & Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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