Sunday, October 31, 2021

'Your grocery stores are like museums': Then and now

About 15 years ago I helped to host a group of Russian entrepreneurs during one stop on their tour of the United States, a tour sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. As we hosts accompanied our visitors, we naturally fell into conversation with them. One of them noted a contrast with Russian life that stuck with me because it was offered in terms that were so unexpectedly strange. He said that compared to Russian grocery stores, "your grocery stores are like museums."

Just as fish don't notice they are swimming in water, we Americans are prone to think of our spacious (by world standards) grocery stores with their carefully arranged and brimming shelves; colorful produce sections; fulsome meat counters; and well-stocked frozen dessert cases—all festooned with artfully crafted point-of-purchase displays—as merely utilitarian platforms for obtaining our daily provisions.

Fast forward to today and we find that some grocery stores are unexpectedly moving even closer to the museum model, but not in the good way my Russian acquaintance had in mind. We are, of course, not surprised to see pretty pictures in museums rather than the objects those images depict. Now, in some of grocery stores in Great Britain, pretty pictures are being used to cover over gaps in the produce and dry goods sections.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, October 31.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Chokepoint democracy: Workers capitalize on global system weak spots

In his book Carbon Democracy Timothy Mitchell attempts to explain the rising and falling political power of the working class in terms of the evolution of the world's energy system. The first fossil fuel, coal, required hoards of men (and it was almost exclusively men) to bring it to the surface, get it to market, and bring it to its final users.

Since coal was the largest fossil fuel energy source for human societies from the early days of the Industrial Revolution until the 1950s and its extraction employed a large number of workers who over time unionized, strikes among coal workers severely impacted energy supplies. Those strikes riveted the attention of the authorities and the public as the health and economic well-being of society was at stake.

The rise of oil as the world's dominate energy source changed all that. Oil required many fewer workers to bring it out of the ground and distribute it. Oil production utilizes pumps and pipelines instead of people to move fuel. The decline of the power of coal miners followed in the wake of oil's rise. Oil did not similarly empower workers because so much of the system to extract and refine it runs automatically and can often be overseen temporarily by a few management personnel in the event of a strike or work stoppage.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, October 17.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Things do not have to run out for their scarcity to become destabilizing

Economic cornucopians who believe "innovation" and "substitution" will solve every constraint on the resources needed for modern civilization use a clever piece of misdirection to deflect the arguments of those concerned about limits. These cornucopians say that the claim by the limits crowd that we will "run out" of resources we need to maintain the smooth functioning of our complex industrial society is nonsense.

But that statement is a straw man designed to avoid the real issue, an issue which we see in abundance all around us today, namely: Things do not have to run out for their scarcity to become destabilizing. This is a key argument among those concerned about limits and the effects of those limits on the stable functioning of modern society.

We have not run out of fossil fuels but shortages are creating widespread problems in China and Europe. We are not running out of water in the world, but there is not enough of it in the right place to supply all the needs of those living in the American Southwest. That lack of water is leading to a reduction in geothermal power generation as well. And, drought in California is reducing the amount hydroelectric generation by a third so far this year.