Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Detroit officially joins the salvage economy

In Dark Age America: The End of the Old Order, Greer wrote about the usefulness of waste in his model of catabolic collapse.*
As I pointed out in a paper published online back in 2005—a PDF is available here—the process that drives the collapse of civilizations has a surprisingly simple basis: the mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital and the resources that are available to meet those costs. Capital here is meant in the broadest sense of the word, and includes everything in which a civilizations invests its wealth: buildings, roads, imperial expansion, urban infrastructure, information resources, trained personnel, or what have you. Capital of every kind has to be maintained, and as a civilization adds to its stock of capital, the costs of maintenance rise steadily, until the burden they place on the civilization’s available resources can’t be supported any longer.

The only way to resolve that conflict is to allow some of the capital to be converted to waste, so that its maintenance costs drop to zero and any useful resources locked up in the capital can be put to other uses.
Detroit has long been neglecting the manufactured capital of its infrastructure because it has unable to maintain it, but I don't recall it actively converting the resources locked up in its neglected and obselete infrastructure--until now.  Take it away, Detroit Free Press: Detroit to make $25M from scrapping its own copper.
Detroit is turning to a source to make money post-bankruptcy: Its own supplies of copper.

The city is privatizing and decommissioning its electricity delivery services, and over the next six years expects to make at least $25 million from the sale of copper in underground and overhead electricity lines, a top financial consultant to the city testified this morning in Detroit's bankruptcy proceedings.
Note the "at least."  The same consultant thought that up to 40 million dollars could be realized from recycling all the copper that the city no longer needs.  No wonder Detroit is thinking about doing this.

Follow over the jump for more on Detroit officially joining the salvage economy.

There is a certain amount of irony in this action.
The sale of copper would represent a turnabout for Detroit, for years plagued by scrappers who steal copper from public lighting and electricity lines. The city estimated it was losing as much as $1 million a year because of illegal copper scrapping.
Detroit battled back against scrap metal thieves with legislation approved by lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder in April that cracks down on scrapping by, among other things, mandating a three-day waiting period before people selling the most commonly stolen items are paid by scrap yards. Mayor Mike Duggan and city officials had urged lawmakers to help with the problem, saying it exacerbates blight.
If you can't beat them, join them.

Hold this thought; I'll return to it shortly.

It's not just the bankruptcy and the resulting decommissioning of its municipal power grid that is motivating this move by the city.  The efficiency of LED streetlights is also contributing to the decision.
The city already is reducing the amount of copper it uses in lighting up the city. New circuits for modern LED lights Detroit's Public Lighting Authority is installing across the city – more than 20,000 this year – don't require as much copper. And that leaves more than 85% of the copper lines that power lights overhead, rather than at ground level, making them harder and more dangerous to steal, the lighting authority says.
I told my students this news today, and even they were surprised.  I said that stories like this were the reason I let them turn in news articles for extra credit, so that they would read the papers and watch the news.

Enough of this being a story I tell my students.  What about that thought I told my readers to hold about the illegality of private scrappers?  It turns out that the University of Michigan suggested that the city legitimize them last month, asking Should 'scrappers' go mainstream in Detroit?
For years, "scrappers" have illicitly mined and sold valuable materials out of abandoned Detroit properties, and nonprofits have convened neighborhood volunteers to paint and preserve structures.

Now, with support from the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program, University of Michigan anthropology doctoral student Nicholas Caverly is examining these practices as viable alternatives to property demolition in the city.
"There are all kinds of ambitious models for sustainable urban living, but these approaches typically address the problem of abandoned structures by demolishing them and dumping the waste in landfills," said Caverly, who today starts the two-year Dow Sustainability Fellows Program with nine other new fellows. "My research focuses on bringing the informal practices of scrappers and community groups into conversation with formal efforts to address the city's abandonment."

As part of his doctoral research, Caverly is looking at entrepreneurs and artists who turn salvaged building products into commercial goods and artworks and a Detroit nonprofit that makes sandals out of salvaged tires. By exploring different methods of reusing decayed buildings, Caverly hopes to inform more far-reaching efforts to repurpose degraded built environments, both in Detroit and elsewhere.
Detroit is nowhere near close to doing this, but when Tyree Guyton began the Heidelberg Project more than 25 years ago, it was considered an eyesore.  Now, it's a tourist attraction.  I think it's only a matter of time until the scrappers become decriminalized.

*This is the same entry of Greer's that inspired On American political parties held captive by their interest groups and ideologies. It also inspired another comment of mine, a critique of Greer's paper from 2005.
That's a very interesting model that you devised nine years ago and the most rigorous one I've seen of how an economy works using the assumptions of ecological economics.  You made the issues of resource depletion and pollution central to your analysis, exactly what I tell my students is the distinguishing feature of ecological economics.  In particular, I found the inclusion of waste into your model very interesting.  Other models of the economy ignore waste or don't treat it the way you do.  It's either theoretically impossible (the supposed efficiency of the invisible hand of the market), an externality ("not my problem"), or an evil inefficiency to be deplored and eliminated.  It's not treated as an integral part of the system, even if any environmentally based analysis of an economy as a system includes waste in the form of trash and pollution as an inevitable output of an industrial process.

The one aspect of the model that I found puzzling is that while you made the cessation of maintenance of capital in order to convert it into waste for the purpose of "balancing the books" an essential part of collapse, I couldn't find the extension of the ecological metaphor that would entail converting the waste from physical capital into resources that I expected from your writings about a salvage economy.  Is that something you hadn't considered a decade ago?  If so, do you plan on adding to an updated version of the model?
Greer acknowledged this shortcoming.
Pinku-sensei, that was a detail I missed in the original paper. You'll have noticed that it's been included in subsequent discussions here, and yes, it'll be factored into the new essay when the time comes to create that.
Looking forward to it.


  1. Catarina de Albuquerque and Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteurs on the rights to safe drinking water/sanitation and adequate housing, respectively, both spoke to multiple press organizations, concerned civil service groups, and citizens about the continuing water shutoffs in Detroit and how they also affect the housing situation of citizens in the city. Both condemned the city’s actions as a violation of human rights, stating that the shutoffs primarily affect low-income African-Americans. Furthermore, without water there are increased health risks that can easily be avoided by not shutting off water access.

    The UN rapporteurs also stated that the United States is bound by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that humans have the right to an adequate standard of living. This includes municipalities that are under emergency management, as Detroit has been.

    During their visit to Detroit, the UN rapporteurs found a level of retrogression not seen in their visits to other localities facing similar problems with water and housing. They also stated that nobody in the city is asking for free water- citizens understand they must contribute to the water system, but the water and sanitation costs are rapidly rising and wildly fluctuating. This is due to rising rates passed on to customers to deal with aging infrastructure, declining population levels in the city, and rising unemployment.

    There was also a high number of instances in which residents had paid their water bills but were shut off anyways and had no way to contest their cases.

    “We think that this lack of information and the lack of due process, in the way some of the disconnections have been taken, leads to fear,” stated de Albuquerque.

    The issue of industrial/commercial sites that are delinquent and haven’t had their water shut off was also raised during the question session following the press conference. The UN rapporteurs stated that other municipalities that are poorer than Detroit have risen from similar situations by charging commercial/heavy users more for their increased water consumption.

    “The way I view democracy… it is a precious and fragile thing,” stated Farha. “…You need to figure out how you’re going to protect democracy.”

    Two Rapporteurs Appointed by the UN Visit Detroit: Restore access to water

    Democracy? In America???

    1. "Democracy? In America???"

      One of my favorite catch phrases about politics in Michigan is "welcome to life in a republic, not a democracy."

      Also, thanks for stopping by and giving me that quote and link in the comment. I think I'll recycle it as an entry.