06 July 2008

The coming storm…

There is a legend in Mexico and the southwestern United States about a woman weeping for her children. She is called “La Llorona” (lah yoh-ROH-nah) which means "the crying woman" or “the weeper”. She is the ghost of a woman crying for her dead children that she herself drowned. Her appearances sometimes presage death or disasters involving water. When people here in Mexico, especially the older folks, see the growing dark rain clouds on the horizon that signal a big storm is approaching they will nod their heads toward it in warning and say softly, “Ya viene la Llorona” or “Already the weeper is coming”. Lately I have observed some alarming trends that indicate that there is a large storm brewing not only on the Mexican horizon but also on the world horizon and many people are starting to realize it but mostly all we can do as look at each other and nod toward impending gloom and whisper “Here comes the Weeper”. Perhaps we ought to be saying “Here comes the Reaper” instead.

As almost everyone realizes by now we live in a global economy that runs on oil. An optimist will tell you that peak oil production hasn’t yet arrived and that oil production won’t begin to decline for another ten years or so and by then there will be major investments in new technology to avert an energy crisis. A pessimist will tell you that peak oil production is occurring now and civilization as we know it is on the brink of a precipitous decline. I happen to be neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I tend to think of myself (like many people do) as a pragmatic realist. I believe that we are entering the period when oil production is about to decline and other energy producing technologies are not yet developed or deployed to the degree where they can take up the slack. In short, I believe that we are in for some rough times in the near future. The poor will feel it first and indeed they already feel it. To the wealthy it is currently just an annoyance but by and by they will soon realize that human beings are all in this together and even if they do not experience a decline in their lifestyle in regard to food, clothing, and housing they will definitely experience a decline in the general quality of their lives. It will become harder and harder to enjoy life while more and more people around them are desperate and suffering.

I am one of those people whom God has blessed with opportunity and the ability to take advantage of it. I am neither poor nor wealthy but I live quite comfortably in a nice house and drive a nice car and although my income is modest it is adequate for my modest lifestyle. However, I look around me and see so many people who are not as fortunate as I am and I realize that things that I consider just a nuisance may have very serious consequences for others. On the 6th of October, 2007, I wrote a blog entitled “Tighten your belt” in which I noted that the world grain supply was at the time fifty-seven days. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently predicts that this year supplies will plunge to a fifty-three day equivalent…their lowest level in the forty-seven year period for which data exists. That is pretty scary. It suggests that not only will prices become higher but in some areas commodities will become scarce and that will lead to hoarding. Hoarding always leads to even higher prices and further scarcity. For the world’s lower income people this situation does not look good. We can expect to see more starving babies around the world on the nightly news and perhaps even on our local news if things get real bad.

The quality of life issue was brought home to me as I observe more and more people along the highways in Mexico collecting branches and bits of wood that they tie in bundles to the backs of their bicycles. With the price of food rising higher and higher they can not always afford to by sufficient propane gas for cooking. I just had a 30 kilo tank of propane filled last week. It cost me 296.35 pesos which is about $28.67 U.S. for 66 pounds (just under 44 cents per pound). This is not a bad price for propane as long as you have the money to pay for it. If you don’t have the money because of rising food prices what do you do? You either eat food that doesn’t need to be cooked or you get on your bike and go looking for an alternative fuel. One can see that this opens up a whole new spectrum of health and safety issues. Mexico's government is concerned about the impact of soaring food bills. Overall consumer price inflation was 4.95% over the past year, but food price inflation was far higher at 8%. The price for certain items such as cooking oil have risen even higher. About two weeks ago the Mexican government capped prices on foods including cooking oil, beans and other basic food items at least until the end of 2008. It also announced monthly cash payments of 120 pesos ($11.55 U.S.) for the poorest citizens, about 26 million people. This is a start but I’m afraid that it won’t be enough.

What about life in the United States? The people must be facing the same pressures, especially the working poor with families who live paycheck to paycheck and can’t seem to make ends meet. What will happen to them when winter comes? I read somewhere once that the average American is only nine missed meals away from acts of desperation. I hope it doesn’t come to that or else these will be desperate times indeed. As for the rest of the world, what does the crystal ball say? Well, with the world demand for grain growing at 1.2% a year and world grain yield increases growing at only 1.1% a year you really don’t need a crystal ball to make a projection. On top of that the Midwest grain forecasts have been lowered considerable by the recent flooding, we are just entering the hurricane season, and Iran is threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz. To grow more food we need more oil to fuel the tractors and transport vehicles and to make fertilizer. Well…you get the picture. I didn’t want to sound pessimistic but I guess I do. I just hope and pray that the optimists are right this time around. Otherwise Santa Claus is going to be in for some really tough sledding this year.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.