Monday, December 6, 2010

Where Have the Good Jobs Gone?

A recent comment on a CNN Money article asked about the fact that millions of jobs have been lost in this recession and might be gone for good. These jobs are an outward signal that our economy is fundamentally changing. The contraction we are experiencing, is not a typical dip in the road. It is a fundamentally different road than one we have driven down before. In the longer term perspective, this is not unusual. It only feels usual because it has not happened in our lifetimes. But ask any octogenarian and they will tell you about a time when life in American was very different. The Great Depression is called that for a good reason. Daily life was different back then. It was slower, more local, and closer to the bone. People were focused on the basics. Food, water, clothing, shelter, and community.

Over the next decade the kind of job creation we can expect, will be in areas which have not seen growth in decades. As our economy shifts from a global consumerist one, to a much more local community focus, we will see a complex network of local economics re-emerge. I expect to see entire industries flourish based on a relocalization of many of our most basic needs.

Decentralization of the Energy Grid
The current emphasis on renewable energy will grow as more and more as home owners, businesses, local, state, and federal government buildings, military bases, and schools install power generation systems. This is a very good thing for jobs, for grid efficiency, and even for national security. The design, installation, monitoring, and maintenance of these systems will generate millions of jobs

Growing Local Farms
As I write, less than 2% of all Americans grow the food grown in this country. As the cost to transport food from the other side of the planet increases, it will become an economic requirement to grow more of our food in our own soil. Farmers will become our new "rock stars" transforming vacant lots, abandoned suburbs, big box parking lots and city parks and open spaces into productive agricultural farms. America will once again become an agricultural nation where many of us will spent at least some part of our work hours planting, weeding, harvesting, and selling food to one another. We will re-learn the challenges and the delights of growing more of our food close to where we live.

Made in America
America was built on the strength of our manufacturing. But almost all of it has been sent overseas. As the price of oil returns to triple-digit prices we will see a manufacturing renaissance in America. The cost of moving raw materials and finished products around the world will no longer make economic sense. But instead of the containers filled with plastic trinkets we will shift our attention to making the things people need. The consumptive consumerist lifestyle may have seen its last hurrah with the bursting of the housing bubble and the disappearance of trillions of dollars of our savings, home equity, and retirement accounts. Many of us can no longer afford to buy all the "stuff" we had been convinced we needed. 

Second Hand Renaissance
I am convinced that much of the manufacturing jobs will not involve new materials. Out of necessity we are seeing a meteoric rise in industries that reuse, recycle, repair, and refinish things. From clothing, to furniture, building materials, and car parts in almost every town the skills needed to re-build and repair broken or work out items will once again become a popular and necessary.

I close with a quote from Jim Howard Kuntsler,
If you want something like gainful employment in the years ahead, don't rely on the corporations, the government, or anyone with a work station equipped cubicle. Start reading up on gardening and harness repair. Learn how to fix a pair of shoes. Volunteer for EMT duty if you're already out of a paycheck, and learn how to comfort people in medical distress. Jobs of the future will be hands-on and direct. I have no idea what medium of exchange you'll get paid with, but a chicken is a good start.
 Have a great day and go out and learn a new skill. It will be well worth your time.

Monday, November 29, 2010

What Have We Learned?

Americans are smart people. We have the ability to learn from history and our mistakes. When the first energy shocks arrived in the 1970's I remember distinctly how Americans rolled with the punches.

As you can see from the graph to the right American drivers cut back on our driving during the 1973-74 and the 1979-81 recessions. We showed the "Oil Barrons" of OPEC we had enought of their grip on our gasoline prices.

Because of this 4-fold increase in the price of gas, from $0.28 a gallon to a stifling $1.00 a gallon, 2 critically important things happened.

First, American's learned to put gasoline into their own cars! Imagine that. Filling stations were magically transformed into 24 hour "gas and go's." The huge price increases caused filling stations to shutter and those who survived scaled back their staff to a bare minimum. The second culture shaking change was the elimination of that sweet bell which sang out as every galllon of gas poured into our ever thirsty automobiles, trucks and motorcycles.

During those early years American's were shocked to learn that the once gasoline exporter of the world, imported almost 25% of our gas from other countries from around the world. But those days are long gone. Now as we rack up just over 3,000,000,000,000 miles every year (that's trillion folks)  we have certainly learned our lessions. For the most recent calendar year we have only imported 76% of our gasoline from outside this great country with average oil prices at $84 per barrel and average national pump prices for regular gas selling $2.85 a gallon.

I can't wait to see what we learn next!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Community Input Sought in Boulder's Clean Energy Plan

It’s good to live in a city like Boulder where public officials value transparency of the public process, citizen participation, and reducing carbon emissions.

Boulder has recently embarked on a pioneering process to produce a landmark 2011 Clean Energy Action Plan. The City is seeking input from all stakeholders, including citizens, small business owners, large utility customers, technical experts on renewable energy, and community organizations to shape its Clean Energy Future.
In a public City Council Study Session visioning session on Oct. 12, Mayor Susan Osborne imagined a Boulder 10 years from now that has adopted a clean energy action plan. Osborne likened the City's successful Open Space Program to the City's future clean energy strategy that will "become part of our identify and for which we are known around the world."

To gather stakeholder input about Boulder's Clean Energy Future, the City is hosting a series of public round tables from October 20 through November 10. Called “Boulder Matters,” the meetings are being held throughout Boulder. Organizers say each round table will provide refreshments, offer a raffle, and provide activities for children to make it easier for adults and parents to attend. For example, I just received an email for the Oct. 20 event which will include cider, snacks, and pumpkin painting.

The first two Boulder Matters round tables are:
Weds. Oct. 20, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Fairview High School Cafeteria
Sat. Oct. 24, from 1 to 4 p.m. at Chautauqua Community House

I'm impressed with the website page for Boulder’s Energy Future where agendas, minutes, and background documents are posted from previous City Council Study Sessions. Also on the website are the city's clean energy goals, a newly-created 5-minute video explaining the City process for the Clean Energy Action Plan and near the bottom of the page a place to sign up for an e-group to receive updates, and to post your comments for public record.

Note that City Council Energy Round tables are open to the public and will continue though December 14. Energy Round tables take place every other Tuesday at 5 pm directly before City Council meetings in the lobby of the downtown Municipal Building. The next one is Tuesday, Oct. 26 from 5-6 pm.

Vote YES on 2B
The key that opens the door to a Boulder whose future electricity is sourced by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels is 2B. (Thanks to solar educator Ken Regelson for the key analogy.) All members of City Council, Boulder County Commissioners Will Toor and Ben Pearlman, plus numerous environmentally-conscious Boulder organizations and businesses support 2B. It is now it is up to us citizens to vote YES on 2B to create a "five year utility occupation tax to replace lost franchise fee revenue" (Source Official Ballot for 2010 Boulder County General Election.)

Passing 2B will enable the City to directly collect the $4.1 million per year Xcel currently obtains through its 3 percent franchise fee on your utility bill. The replacement tax will give Boulder direct control over the money for essential City services – with no change to Xcel’s service to Boulder residents and businesses. Passing 2B will empower Boulder to negotiate a contract that will best meet our City's clean energy goals after the current franchise agreement with Xcel expires December 31, 2010. Background on 2B info can be found at and at the Boulder Energy Future website.

Let's Do It!
Boulder - we have an historic opportunity to choose how much of our energy supply comes from renewables. Vote YES on 2B and participate in "Boulder Matters" because these are important matters and your voice matters!

Friday, October 8, 2010

So How Are You Today?

During challenging times most people are working hard to keep up the facade that things are just fine. Here is a conversation I might have overheard at a local coffee shop.

Alec: Heah Bob how are you doing?

Bob: I am well. Thanks for asking.

Alec: Good to hear. You are looking trimmer these days.

Bob: Yea well I have been eating less.

Alec: Good idea. And I see you are sporting a new hair style.

Bob: Yes my daughter has started cutting hair.

Alec: Really. Isn’t she only 11?

Bob: Sure but we encourage our kids to keep expanding their skill set. Why just the other night we had our 12-year-old make dinner.

Alec: Really and how did that turn out.

Bob: Well she really didn’t understand that large flames would trigger the fire sprinkler system.

Alec: Oh my, that sounds like it didn’t turn out so well.

Bob: The real issue is if our homeowners insurance will pay to have the house rebuilt.

Alec: That is why we have insurance.

Bob: Yea but only if you are current on your payments.

Alec: So it sounds like you skipped the homemade meal.

Bob: Oh it just gave us a good reason to go out to eat.

Alec: Good plan. So where did you go?

Bob: Well the first place we usually go had unexpectedtly gone out of business. So we drove across town to our favorite all-you-can eat place.

Alec: Bet that filled you all up.

Bob: Well our credit card was declined when we got to the cashier. But we were able to snack on the stuff on our trays before we found out.

Alec: So it sounds like things are a little challenging right now.

Bob: Yeah I guess so. Do you happen to have $100 I could borrow?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Recent Chat With Benny Bernanke

On a recent elevator ride I had the opportunity to chat with Benny Bernanke about the current financial situation we find ourselves in.

Zev: So Benny how are you feeling these days?

Benny: Well Zev, to be honest I am a bit overwhelmed.

Zev: Really. What are you most concerned about?

Benny: When I was in grad school at M.I.T and went on to become a tenured professor at Princeton University in the Department of Economics, all we talked about were the best ways to achieve economic growth.

Zev: Well isn't that what we want?

Benny: Of course. But the problem is that no matter what I do, significant growth remains elusive.

Zev: What if we stopped focusing on growth and looked at scenarios that promoted sustainability?

Benny: Huh?

Zev: What if we were to organize our economy around sustainability and quality of life and not around growth at any cost?

Benny: I don't understand?

Zev: I think I see the problem.

The elevator stops and the door slides open.

Benny: This is my floor. Nice chatting with you and have a great day!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What is Really Important?

Earlier this month on the even of Rosh Hashana the Jewish New Year, my family and the other 11 households who make up our small cohousing community, were faced with a difficult decision. At that time, a raging forest fire was gobbling up thousands of acres of Colorado forest just a few miles west of our community.

Earlier that morning the neighborhood near our location were told to prepare for a possible evacuation if the winds picked up and the fire jumped the fire line. To our relief that turned out to be unnecessary.

Just in case, members of our community met briefly to talk about our situation and to set up an overnight web and visual watch for an evacuation order for our part of town.

During that informal gathering, the topic of what should we pack became a central topic of conversation. The diversity of strongly felt opinions showcased how different people value their possessions. It was a common theme that packing required medicines, old family photos, and paper documents — which would be extremely difficult to track down or recreate — were mentioned by everyone. But beyond those items the conversations became very interesting and personal.

For one community member who is very athletic, he said he would be taking several of his bikes if an evacuation was required. Another resident said her clothing would be almost impossible to replace and would plan to fill her car with as many clothes as possible. A third resident commented that his life is mostly digital and it was all securely backed up at a remote location. "Look at my house," he commented. "I am not one to collect things and would probably not take much of anything with me if I had to leave."

Even in my own family there was a wide range of priorities as we were forced to decide what should be taken if it was all you had left when the fire was over. It was these conversations for me that placed all the material aspects of our world into stark perspective. It offered me the opportunity to be grateful for the people in my life and skills I have acquired that can be taken with me where ever I go.

I would never wish a fire on anyone but the chance to decide "What is Really Important?" was a very valuable exercise I would suggest we all do every once in a while.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Emperor's New Clothes

Like the famous short tale by Hans Christian Andersen, our current leaders stand before us saying one thing when a totally different reality is evident to even the youngest members of our society.

According to Wikapedia:
In his tale, an Emperor who cares for nothing but his wardrobe, hires two weavers who promise him the finest suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position. The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position or stupid; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they dress him in mime and the Emperor then marches in procession before his subjects. A child in the crowd calls out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but holds himself up proudly and continues the procession.
Here in the waning days of Summer 2010, I find myself referring often to the current similarities to this strange tale written in 1837. I wish that President Obama could stand before the American public, and state that the growth paradigm we have been operating under for the past 150 years, is now history, and that we must for the sake of our children, and their children, create a sustainable economy.

If the President of the United States or the Secretary of the Treasury, or the Chairman of the Fed were to make this proclamation, he would either be assassinated before the end of his speech, or simply carted away and heavily medicated under the guise of "national security." If this reality was openly acknowledged, our current economy and army of investors working away at developing and selling fantasy financial products on Wall Street, would crash and burn in a matter of hours.

I am here to proudly say, and ask all of you reading these words, to yell at the top of your lungs, "The Emperor Has No Clothes!" We are rapidly approaching the edge of an abyss that could make the Great Depression, look more like a slight economic correction if we do not change our direction.

Along with the creation of renewable energy technologies, re-localized food production, made in America campaigns, and rebuilding America's passenger railroads, we need to acknowledge that "sustainable growth" is an absolute impossibility and it is time to seriously engage in how we can transition this great nation to a sustainable economy we can believe in.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Road Ahead

On a recent vacation to Costa Rica earlier this summer, I spent more hours than I had wanted experiencing the driving conditions first hand. For many of the main roads, driving is pretty similar to my Colorado experience. But when you get into the secondary roads, the ones that take you to many of the wonders of the country, the driving becomes a very different experience. The combination of changing road widths, potholes, washboard and the ever present passing cars and trucks made driving a real challenge. I remember turning to my wife and saying, welcome to our future. We are going to see a lot more of this in the U.S.  Now a month later I see this article in the WSJ.

"The Road to Ruin"
January 17, 2010

Outside this speck of a town, pop. 78, a 10-mile stretch of road had deteriorated to the point that residents reported seeing ducks floating in potholes, Mr. Zimmerman said. As the road wore out, the cost of repaving became too great. Last year, the county spent $400,000 on an RM300 Caterpillar rotary mixer to grind the road up, making it look more like the old homesteader trail it once was.

Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.
But this change is not all bad. It will increase the trend toward localization, but it slows us down, and will ultimately create a number of very local jobs to keep the roads in usable condition.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Understanding the Oil News of the Day

One of the more challenging aspects of the entire Peak Oil conversation is the fear of "running out of oil." I can stand here today and tell you with 100% confidence, we will never run out of oil! Why is that? Because there is still a lot it in the ground, and as we continue looking we are quickly seeing that the vast majority of the oil that is left is getting harder and more expensive to get out of the ground and refine into gasoline.

For example. A few years ago in 2006, British Petrolium (BP) announced that it hat hit it big with the Kaskida field in the Keathley Canyon region of the Gulf of Mexico. A very sophisticated and expensive submersible called Deepwater Horizon, drilled the well to 32,500 ft in 5,860 ft of water and encountered an 800 foot deep pocket of sand which was saturated with oil. In 2009 they drilled a second exploritory well and learned that the oil pocket extend into another part of the same canyon. Three years and two wells.

That sounds promising on the surface, but let's take a minute to drill down a bit deeper (pun most defiantly intended). This is not like drilling a 500 foot well in your backyard and hitting a gusher. British Petroleum went out 250 miles southwest of New Orleans, and with a very specialized submarine went down over a mile to the bottom of the Gulf and then proceeded to drill a 5 mile deep well to discover sand soaked oil.
That is an incredible feat. And a very expensive one as well. The bigger challenge is what will be necessary in both time and money to create an ongoing pumping and refining complex to get this oily sand out of the ground, pump or ship it hundreds of miles to the nearest refinery and do what needs to be done to make this liquid ready to be used in your car or truck. That process can easily take 10 years to accomplish. If BP is very fortunate and the oil field turns out to be a "Super Giant Field" with at least 5 billion recoverable barrels of oil, this discovery will feed the world at our current rate of usage for 90 days. If you want even more details about the challenges of this kind of project, please read this.

So this is what BP calls hitting it big!

The challenge we are faced with is not running out of oil but figuring out how we will ever afford oil that takes this level of effort to get out of the ground and into our gas tanks.

I suggest we seriously focus on how to re-organize ourselves to avoid needing that oil in the first place.

I think creating Peak Communities may be a big part of the answer.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Introducing Peak Community

Over the past 35 years I have had the privilege of working on a wide variety of efforts all aimed at creating a more sustainable society. These have included recycling, aquaculture for waste water treatment, neighborhood composting systems, bike sharing, mass transit, urban agriculture, green construction and mixed use developments.

Since the early 1990's, the concept of cohousing, environmentally-sensitive clustered neighborhoods, has become established here in the United States. Started in Denmark, it has evolved to adapt to the realities of American Culture as well as our changing economic landscape. Over that time, the residents of these neighborhoods have learned a tremendous amount about how to work together and to design, build and organize their homes to improve their energy efficiency while developing of strong relationships between neighbors.

But now even more is required if we are to transform our communities to adjust to the demographic and economic tidal waves heading our way. The issues of sustainability, green construction, food production, renewable energy and walkable communities need to be woven together with the inter-personal lessons we have learned creating and living in cohousing communities over the past 20 years. The result of this merging of innovative ideas is a concept I am calling “Peak Community.”

What kind of a future can we create, which is both spiritually uplifting, and increasingly sustainable for our environment?

Over the next few months I will be posting blog entries which explain the various components of this emerging concept of Peak Community. I hope you enjoy them.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Renewable Energy and the Emerging Green Economy

As 2009 ended, the price of oil rose to $79.62 a barrel  (December 31, 2009) 71 percent higher than a year ago. From reliable sources such as oil economist Matt Simmons and postings on The Oil Drum, many see that the United States will most probably shift to natural gas as a transition fuel supply replacing hard to reach and expensive sources of oil. By now it must be obvious that renewable energy sources, e.g. solar, wind, geothermal and the promising area of algae, are the logical long term sustainable solutions for our national economy. 

Abraham Paiss & Associates was fortunate in 2009 to become the public relations, marketing, and web design firm for one of Colorado's leading solar engineering and construction companies: SolSource Inc. Headquartered in Denver, SolSource is a highly experienced designer and installer of solar electric and solar thermal systems for homes, businesses, municipalities, schools, and the military. During 2009 we assisted SolSource in its announcement of a 1.2 MW solar photovoltaic system for Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado. When installed in 2010 this installation will be the largest solar array on a U.S. Air Force base in Colorado. You can read about it in an AP story written in the Denver Post.

Helping schools lower their utility bills and incorporate renewable energy into the school curriculum is another focus of SolSource. In December, Jeff Scott, company founder and president, visited Academia Sandoval Elementary School in Denver to teach children how much energy is produced from the 9.8 kW solar system on their school roof in the first use of an online data monitoring system in the Denver Public School system. We feel honored to work with an excellent solar energy company and are looking forward to supporting SolSource in its pioneering work ahead in 2010.