Saturday, August 30, 2008

Boats for Post-Cheap Oil Survival

This is a guest post from Ian Swan. As some of you know, I have sold my shoreside residence, and for more than a year now I have been living aboard and sailing up and down the east coast of the US. I have done this both as a lifestyle choice and as a way to minimize costs, including fuel costs, and to maximize the available options. For many of you, such a dramatic change of habits is out of the question. But this is not to say that you should neglect to look at boats as an important element of your post-collapse preparations. Ian's article takes this subject, which for most people resides in the realm of daydreams, and brings it down to the level of practical reality. Unlike many sailing experts that might try to impress you with their opinions, Ian knows his stuff, and, very importantly, he isn't trying to sell you anything. So if you are one of the many people who think that having a "just in case" boat might be a good idea, but have not acted on it, this article is for you.

To introduce myself: I am a New Zealander living near the coast in the North Island. I also lived for nine years in the South Pacific Islands, where I was able to observe primitive, third world living conditions. I share the view that peak oil is going to have a big effect on our lifestyles, and the simultaneous arrival of economic troubles and climate change is setting up a "perfect storm". If things collapse as Dmitry, I, and many others are expecting, you may find yourself in the same situation as a third world hunter (fisherman), gatherer, and farmer. That was the normal situation for many in the South Pacific Islands when I lived there. I'm not saying that we will return to the stone age, or even to the dark ages, but cheap oil -- the basis on which the edifice of our current society is built -- is gone, and the debt bomb is about to explode at the same time. This combination could create a tipping point that could cast you into an economic and social situation which will rival the Great Depression. If you agree with this (and if you are visiting this site it suggests you might) then you should make some preparations, at least in your mind, about what you would do, and how you might survive in this scenario.

Specifically, you might want to ponder the question of food. It has always struck me how much easier it is to get protein from the sea by fishing, and gathering shellfish, crabs, and so on, compared with land-based hunting and gardening. The same applies to a lesser degree to a lake or a large river. There is always food to be had where land meets water, it's a particularly productive environment, once things settle down in a post collapse environment, living near water will offer many opportunities for fishing and hunting, and travel by water. One of the keys to exploiting the sea coast or a lake for food is a boat, or a canoe, and this brings me to the point of this article: we have an opportunity to prepare for post-oil and post-consumer society by getting an appropriate boat, or, better yet, several appropriate boats, as I have.

The use of boats as a means of transport should also be considered. In common with Dmitry, I believe that sail is the way to go. If the boat is small enough, then rowing or sculling can be the source of auxiliary power. The smaller the boat, the more effective and practical this manual propulsion can be.

This article is not intended to be an introduction to boating, so if boats, and especially sailboats, are outside your experience, then I suggest that you get some books on the subject. Older books may be better, since what I am suggesting here is not particularly modern or high tech.

If your experience is with power boats, then I would suggest that you need to change your thinking. The cost and availability of fuel may soon make a modern powerboat a useless asset. The large, high speed "fizz boat" is the pinnacle of gross, wasteful overconsumption of oil-based fuel. Fuel consumption in big, fast powerboats can sometimes be measured in gallons per minute, and it is certainly many gallons per hour. They make Hummers look good.

There is an opportunity right now to try and get used sailboats and sails, which can often be had for very little. A great place to start is your local Craig's list. A boat is quite a big item, so you don't want to have to go far to get one, or the cost of delivery will become significant. If the boat is a real bargain, it may be worth traveling to get it. Even if the hull itself is worthless, what's on it may be very valuable indeed. For instance, the modern Dacron sail is a dramatic improvement over a canvass/cotton sail in terms of durability and function. If, at some time in the future, when modern synthetic fiber is no longer available or affordable, you try to fit out a sailboat, you will curse your lack of foresight in not obtaining a cheap old Dacron sail. Oars are not cheap or easy to make either, so if you see some cheap used oars, grab them.

Think about what might happen to you and your family in a collapse scenario, and also think about what boat might be useful for your location and situation. Even if you live miles from water, have you seen how useful boats become if you are caught in a flood? Right now, there is the opportunity to buy, or even to get for free, old sailboats that are sitting unused and deteriorating in backyards. I know this because I have collected quite a few of them myself, often for a fraction of the value of their fittings and construction costs. One of the reasons for this is that most people do not want small sailboats any more: they want big yachts or high performance racing sailboats such as Lazers and Hobie cats, which leaves the older class of boats unloved and unwanted. Owners also do not want wood, or plywood, for the maintenance problem; so these go cheaply too. There are two types of sailboats available that I think are most suited to the "survivalist" and these are the small trailer sailer and the small sailing dinghy. I am not talking about a boat to live on, but a boat that you can use for fishing, perhaps to make short coastal passages, on lakes and rivers: something that might carry you plus a small load of cargo for trade if such conditions arose. A boat has huge carrying capacity compared to a cart, and, once it is supported by the virtually frictionless water, takes very little energy to move. The trailer boat is mobile, compared to a boat on a mooring or at a marina, and mobility gives you choice of location. The ongoing cost and worry of boats sitting in the water is a killer. I don't recommend them, unless you know that you are going to use them a lot, and have plenty of money. A boat sitting on a trailer, under a tarp, in your back yard, will cost you nothing.

If you study the canal boat industry, you will discover that boats have enormous energy efficiency and cargo weight advantages over the horse and cart and the pack horse. The canal boat was only replaced by rail because of its low speed. Take away cheap oil, and the boat will make an instant comeback as a freight carrier. Take away the roads, and suddenly the rivers and the seacoast will provide the only access. I grew up in a town called "Te Awamutu". Which literally translates from the Maori language as "The Path End". It was the point at which the local river was no longer deep enough to navigate by canoe. That's the way it was; and it soon may become that way again.

The practical, useful sailboat you should be looking out for is a 10 to 14-foot open sailing dinghy or a 14- to 18-foot cabin trailer sailer. These are boats of a size that you can manhandle to launch if necessary. You could drag then up a beach on rollers with manpower or block and tackle. A 20 foot boat is getting pretty big, but may be manageable if you have lots of strong men. You can get a plywood boat very cheaply, but the reason for this is that it may be rotten. In fact, I usually assume that it is, and only agree to pay salvage value. If it is on a trailer, the value of the trailer may be as much as the boat. What comes with the boat, in terms of gear and fittings, may be worth even more than the boat. I paid $500 for a derelict 21-foot boat that had an anchor, chain and rode that were worth $250 second hand and easily $500 to replace new. It also had a mast and rigging, two sets of sails (one brand new), lots of stainless steel fittings, and safety gear. I will probably never repair this boat, but I have it blocked up as a little emergency "cabin". Did I mention that it has 500 lbs of lead in the keel? (Lead now goes for about 90 cents a pound.) All this gear is worth something to me as I have other boats worthy of repair. In a survival situation, all this stuff will be gold. To be a collector like me, you have to have space to store the boats, and I am lucky as I have a small farm and some old barns. But there must be a few of you out there who have the space to store one boat at least.

An 11 or 12-foot dinghy is a good size for a fishing boat that can be sailed or rowed. A boat like this could be either plywood or fiberglass. Fiberglass will cost you more and be heavier, but it will also be virtually indestructible if it is well-made. An aluminum mast, with stainless wire rigging, and a Dacron sail are all standard on modern sailing dinghies. There should be a mainsheet and a pulley set for the mainsail, which vary in quality and can be expensive to buy new, and maybe a foresail jib with sheets. In New Zealand there is a dinghy of this type, called a Sunburst. The Mirror Dinghy would be the British equivalent. It was designed in the 1960s as a "family boat": mom, dad and the kids could go out for a sail or fishing. The kids could learn to row and to sail. It could take a little 3-horsepower outboard for longer trips. Great concept! What happened? It became a racing class. The boats were "refined," made self-bailing, no seats, redesigned for speed and minimum weight, and now cost $14,000 for a competitive boat. They are fragile and completely useless for fishing. This has been the pattern for modern sailing dinghies: they are fast, unstable, and uncomfortable. Most are unsuited to use as our "survival" utilitarian boat. You might be able to adapt one of these racing machines, making it useful by reducing the sail, fitting oarlocks for oars and adding seats and floorboards to give it strength. But even if you can't, at least you will get a mast and sails. I actually got one racing skiff with 4 sets of sails for $100. I figure the sails could be used on a big family trailer sailer for light wind days. But there are also perfectly reasonable sailboats out there if you look.

Whatever you can get in the way of a hull, a mast and some sails will be vastly supeior to anything that you might construct if you were to start from scratch. Of course is possible to build a wooden boat from timbers, make a mast from a straight pole, weave a sail from flax or cotton, and make the rigging from wire and rope. But this is a skilled task way beyond most of us, and I can assure you that having some kind of boat ready made -- any kind -- will be a lot easier. What I see as most important in a collapse situation is being able to make the transition from being completely dependent on the supermarket as your main food source to becoming self sufficient, and from the motor car and airplane to the horse and the boat for transport (and bicycles while they last). Eventually we, or the community we are part of, will have to re-learn the skills to make things from scratch with hand tools, and to croos oceans hand-made boats, as we had done for centuries. That's fine, but meanwhile, in the short term, we need to eat, and there is good fishing on that reef a mile offshore.

So if you have a driveway or a back yard you can use to store a boat, start looking now. A good size for trailer yacht is in the 16 to 22-foot range; they run up to 25-30 feet but these are expensive monsters, and you would need a big SUV or truck to haul and launch them. You would have to pay more for a fiberglass hull, but if you look on Craig's List or other local sources you will find the odd one going cheap for various reasons. Sometimes the owner just wants to move an unused boat and does not have the time or energy to "sell" it. Wives sometimes have a role in these decisions to sell boats. You just have to be there at the right time. Right now, people are under pressure financially, and need to sell their unused stuff, which may include their boat. I have bought some very well-made plywood boats a fiberglass outer layer (GOP, glass over plywood). I have also seen hulls that you could punch your fist through, as they were not made of marine ply. I see smaller, older fiberglass (GRP, glass reinforced plastic) trailer yachts on Craigs list in the $1000 to $2500 range. A new boat, provided someone is still making them, would cost $20,000 or more. Depending on your level mechanical skill, an outboard motor that comes with the boat may be worth having, especially if it is a simple 2-stroke. A new outboard may cost more than an old boat. Post cheap oil, an old, inefficient 2-stroke outboard may be expensive to run, but even when fuel is very expensive, a small engine may be a lifesaver when needed in an emergency, and worth having. If you only use it as a backup, fuel cost is minimal.

The trailer yacht usually has a small cabin with sleeping space for two (or more, but they have to be very good friends) and a minimal setup for cooking. It can be used for overnight trips, and is secure and dry in bad weather. It can be used as a sleeping "cabin" even on land. If it is raining and blowing hard, it will be more secure than a tent. There is usually a lifting centerboard, which allows the boat to be beached and sailed in shallow waters, which is a very useful feature. A conventional keelboat is very restricted as to where it can navigate. It is possible to capsize some trailer sailboats as the ballast is usually not as massive as with a keelboat, so be aware these boats are not bombproof, and sail conservatively until you really know what you are doing. With these boats, you have to be aware of what's happening with the wind and react quickly and appropriately. They are not ocean going yachts unless so equipped and sailed by experienced sailors. The reason I suggest older and second hand boats is that you get a lot of boat for your money. You don't want to spend a lot on something you might not use. Recycling is always a good principle.

Even if you plan to sail whenever possible, fuel efficiency is still an important consideration. One small trailer sailboat I bought has a small air cooled 3HP diesel engine in it. I would think you could hardly get a more energy efficient fishing boat than this. At slow speed, it goes for miles on a pint of diesel. The problem with many fishing vessels these days is that the cost of fuel is not covered by the value of the catch. Whole fleets of them sit tied up at the dock. This relates to the depletion of fish stocks as well as to fuel costs, but the result is the same: only a very appropriately sized and fuel efficient boat will remain economic on a cost/catch ratio. I think that my boat, with sail backup, might actually be efficient enough. The key to the fuel efficiency of small trailer sailboats is that they are displacement hulls being driven at less than their hull speed. This means they are slow, 5-6 mph, but very efficient. The faster you try to go, the less efficient they will be. In certain conditions, you can use motor and sail together. When fuel gets really expensive, motoring in a small boat may actually be the most efficient way of maximizing the load/mile of the fuel. It won't be fast, but it may be cost effective.

Other boat options to consider, which may be appropriate to individual situations, are kayaks, canoes, folding boats (Portabote is one company that makes them), and inflatable boats. I recently bought an inflatable kayak with the idea that I could carry it deflated on my back on a bike explore waterways that I can bike to. I can use it as a platform for spear fishing or shellfish collecting. Kayaks and canoes are good for small shallow rivers and lakes and can be carried by hand across or around obstacles. But people also make long ocean trips in appropriately equipped kayaks, and they make good fishing platforms with the right gear. Modern plastic kayaks are very durable.

Inflatable boats can be stored in small spaces, carried more easily deflated, and are very stable and great load carriers. They are harder to row, especially upwind, because of their high windage. When I was in the islands, I had a 10-foot inflatable which I could carry inflated on my back. I could carry it down steep banks and launch in places you could never get a trailer. The boat would carry 4 men and scuba gear for 4. A similar size hard dinghy would not do that safely. It was appropriate to the task and situation. But an inflatable is not as durable or long-lasting as aluminum or fiberglass, and is only good as a short-term survival boat. Portabotes, on the other hand, are made of thick dense plastic and fold up. You can row them and there is the possibility of a small sail, or a small motor. They are quite durable, and may be appropriate for your circumstances. Have a look at them on their website.

I hope I have given you some food for thought. The time to prepare is now, an the time to practice self sufficiency is now. And besides, boating and fishing are fun, an what could be a better incentive than that?

Monday, August 25, 2008

When All Your Best Employees are Going Broke

This piece started out as a solicited submission to Harvard Business Review for their "List of Breakthrough Ideas." After careful review, it was decided that the senior executives that are the target audience of this publication would find my breakthrough idea "counterintuitive," and I was asked to look for evidence of my breakthrough idea's effectiveness. UPDATE: My editor at HBR wrote: "We LIKE its counterintuivity – that’s what’s attractive about it. In fact, your idea beat out many dozens of others. I think it’s important and timely... The article also deserves more space than we could allot to it in the section. Likewise, the HBR has a fairly high bar…We just need more evidence, if you can find it." So, if you are a senior executive and would like to try a novel approach to running your business, please give this a try, and let me know how you make out.

The combination of skyrocketing food and energy costs, rising medical costs, falling real estate values and stagnant wages is putting increasing numbers of workers in financial distress. A distressed workforce can hardly be a productive workforce, and companies must do whatever it takes to make it physically possible for their employees to function. What can companies do to remedy this situation? The obvious step of increasing wages not only puts additional pressure on the bottom line, but can also fuel wage inflation. Also, It may not be the most effective approach.

A better approach is to treat the company and its employees as an economic unit: a single household, with a common set of costs. These costs can be cut very effectively by trading off slightly higher company costs against significantly lower employee costs. Each additional dollar paid out in wages is taxed as income, trimming it by about a third. It is then spent in the retail chain, generating profits for retailers and service providers, trimming it by another half or more. This same dollar can be stretched much further if the company uses it to buy products wholesale and makes them available to its employees either free of charge or for a nominal fee.

Many families are struggling with rising food costs. To help them, the company commissary can provide not just breakfast and lunch, but take-home dinners for the entire family. Periodically, it can provide other take-home items such as frozen chickens purchased in bulk, fresh organic vegetables from local CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) farms, or a basket of popular foodstuffs purchased wholesale and assembled in-house.

Many employees are finding that their daily commute is eating ever deeper into their budgets because of the increasing price of fuel. In many cases, their ability to relocate closer to work is complicated by the stagnant real estate market and the higher price of housing closer to population centers. Telecommuting can help, but is only feasible for certain types of work. Here, the company can help by providing dormitories close by, which would allow employees to commute every other day, or even just once a week. For the younger, single employees, this may allow them to avoid spending money on housing altogether.

There are numerous other ways that a company can use its vastly greater negotiating power to effect significant savings for its employees while incurring a comparatively small additional cost. Examples run from directly providing family medical care through a company clinic to providing vacation packages at cost by renting out an entire vacation resort at a lower, negotiated group rate.

But perhaps the greatest opportunities for cost reduction lie in areas where employees' own efforts can replace services or products they would otherwise be forced to purchase, be it taking care of their elderly relatives instead of putting them in assisted living, or spending time with their children instead of paying for day care, or growing their own food in a community garden instead of shopping at a supermarket. Here, the company has to be willing to accommodate shorter working hours, trading off the slightly lower efficiency of having more part-time employees against the resulting vastly greater efficiency of the company community when it is viewed as a single household.

There is no need to couch such initiatives in purely negative terms of cost containment. Here is how Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, sees it: "The goal is to strip away everything that gets in our employees' way. We provide a standard package of fringe benefits, but on top of that are first-class dining facilities, gyms, laundry rooms, massage rooms, haircuts, car washes, dry cleaning, commuting buses - just about anything a hardworking employee engineer might want."

If you feel that such special treatment may be required for the pampered software artists at prosperous Google, but not for your own employees, then take a look at the long list of benefits enjoyed by the enlisted men and women of the US Air Force, which includes 30 days a year of paid vacation and unlimited free air travel. This is a fine example of making the best use of what you have to make a difference for your employees: if what you have is plenty of jets, then why not let your employees travel as much as they want?

Although the results of such efforts may at first be difficult to quantify, should they succeed, the resulting competitive advantage is likely to become obvious. Let your hard-nosed competitors try to run their businesses with distressed, disgruntled, overworked employees, while you reap the benefits of loyalty, solidarity and ésprit de corps. In due course, this should make your competitors attractive as acquisition targets.

One ready objection that this proposal normally encounters runs along the lines of “If everybody did this, the economy would collapse.” If it were implemented across the board, this would cut retailers and the government out of their share of your earnings, reduce both corporate profits and government expenditures, shrink the overall size of the economy, making it unable to sustain a large and growing national debt, and hasten economic collapse and national bankruptcy.

But it is clearly a mistake to consider it likely that this proposal would be implemented by more than a handful of companies. Overwhelming numbers of corporate executives would regard it as professional suicide, because financial markets punish companies that put the interests of their employees ahead of those of their investors. And it seems equally outlandish to think that the actions of a few mavericks could significantly hasten economic collapse and national bankruptcy. In short, the macroeconomic effects of this proposal are not interesting. It is far more interesting to consider the notion that it is possible to safeguard a company and its employees against a continuously worsening economic environment, even onto complete economic and political collapse. The steps proposed in this article can be regarded as baby steps in that direction. The remaining steps are varied and far more difficult, and are beyond the scope of this article.

Combler le « retard d'effondrement »

Everything sounds better in French, even collapse:

L'Union soviétique était mieux préparée à l'effondrement que les États-Unis !

I am happy to announce that my Closing the Collapse Gap slide show has finally breached the language barrier into the francophone world: Combler le « retard d'effondrement » is now available on Qu'y a-t-il sur orbite ?


Friday, August 15, 2008

Radio Interview

I was recently interviewed by Marianne Barisonek of KBOO-FM in Portland, Oregon. The MP3 is available here. Marianne did a great job of pulling key points out of my book and letting me comment on them.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Trouble with Georgia

Ryan suggested that I weigh in on the current conflict in South Ossetia and in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which I mention in passing in my book as one of the bigger post-Soviet political fiascos.

It turns out that I am somewhat qualified to write on the subject: when I was in grad school (linguistics) I studied Abkhaz, the curious language spoken by the indigenous population of the separatist republic of Abkhazia. (Abkhazia is involved in the current conflict, working to flush Georgian forces out of the Kodor gorge, which is the one piece of their territory that remains under nominal Georgian control, as well as providing volunteers to help the South Ossetian side.) Later, finding that the Abkhaz side was woefully underrepresented, I started a web site, ("Apsny" being the Abkhaz word for Abkhazia), where, with help from Prof. Hewitt of the School of Oriental and African Languages in London, Prof. Chirikba, an Abkhaz linguist, and many others, I tried to present facts uncurried by extreme nationalist sentiments. At that time, the internet was dominated by the Georgian side, which was eager to accuse the Abkhaz of atrocities while discounting their own role in the bloody and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to regain control of the breakaway republic, in which some ten thousand people had died and many more had been displaced. For my diligent service, which spanned more than a decade, I received voluminous hate mail and many death threats from the Georgian side, as well as official expressions of gratitude from the Abkhaz side. Be that as it may, I find both the Georgians and the Abkhaz quite amazing, I am sure that the world would be much poorer without them, and I wish they would leave each other in peace, so that I can go and visit either place as I wish.

For obvious reasons, my view of the Caucasus region has always been colored by my interest in linguistics. While the Caucasus mountains are certainly some of the highest and most impressive in the world, it is also a mountain of exotic and often unrelated languages. While Abkhaz, Chechen, and some others form a single North Caucasian family of languages, Georgian (Kartvelian) is only vaguely related to Basque, spoken in France and in Spain, while Ossetian is distantly related to Persian. For thousands of years, the region has been a mosaic made up of fiercely independent tribes, of which Georgians (Kartvelians) were only one of the largest. This made them more capable of forming a viable political entity (a kingdom, initially), but never could they aspire to dominating their neighbors, to whom they were not even vaguely related, either ethnically or linguistically. And language did play a big role: although bilingualism and even multilingualism were by no means rare, none of the tribes were too eager to learn the language of any other tribe en masse. For instance, prior to their being conquered and absorbed into the Russian Empire, the Chechens were a trilingual society, using Arabic in the mosque, Turkish in the market, and one of the "home languages" in the home village. After the Russian conquest, which was very bloody and resulted in the annihilation of several smaller tribes, among them the Ubykh, who simply would not surrender, the Russian language became the lingua franca of the entire region.

To the conquering Russians, Georgia represented the rich, creamy heart of the incredibly tough nut of the Caucasus region. In contrast to the many small and taciturn mountain tribes, many of them either Moslem or animist, here was an Orthodox Christian nation with great traditions of art, music, architecture, poetry, an unparalleled joie de vivre, and a delicious national cuisine. Georgians easily secured for themselves a pleasant role within the empire. Leaving administrative chores to the Russians and commerce and the trades to the Armenians, they were free to indulge in more pleasant pursuits, such as feasting, falconry, and entertaining foreign visitors. This trend had carried over into Soviet times, making Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic a favored tourist destination, a prosperous place complete with amusing wines, delicious food, an exuberantly friendly population that spoke your language, and majestic mountains for a backdrop. In the interest of maintaining public order, the Russians tried to be even-handed in their treatment of the non-Georgian tribes. Knowing full well just how much trouble they can be, they administered their territories as autonomous units within Georgia. One of the more glaring exceptions to this was the arbitrary administrative inclusion of Abkhazia within Georgia, which was done by Joseph Stalin (Dzhugashvili), who was a Georgian, and which in many ways laid the ground for the current conflict.

Their being so well coddled within the fold of the great empire cultivated in the Georgians a sense of exceptionalism and entitlement vis à vis their smaller and poorer neighbors, which, once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russians departed, gave rise to a particularly rabid, venomous, and ultimately self-destructive brand of nationalism. The first post-independence Georgian leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was killed rather quickly. Part of his nationalist rhetoric involved labeling other tribes, such as the Abkhaz and the Ossetians, as newcomers and gypsies, who are only welcome as "guests" on Georgian soil. Next up was Eduard Shevardnadze, who was Foreign Minister of the USSR under Gorbachev, and who was more or less handed Georgia as his personal fiefdom by the West, as his reward for idly standing by and smiling pleasantly while the Berlin wall was being torn down. He was given UN recognition and foreign aid, and told to go ahead and try to preserve "Georgia's territorial integrity." At this he failed miserably, causing a senseless bloodbath and a flood of refugees. Shevardnadze slowly sank into a morass of corruption and national decay, until finally even the West decided that he smelled bad and unceremoniously replaced him with a shiny new face: the American-educated Mikhail Saakashvili. And this brings us to the current conflict, which he started. It is unclear why he decided to start it, but then his American education might offer a clue: the US doesn't seem to need good reasons to start wars either.

It may be difficult for some people to grasp why it is that the Abkhaz or the Ossetians do not much fancy suddenly becoming Georgian, so let me offer you a precise analogy. Suppose Los Angeles, California, were to collapse as the USSR once did, and East L.A. quickly moved to declare its independence. Suppose, further, that the 88% of its population that is Hispanic/Latino voted that the other 12% were free to stay on as "guests," provided they only spoke Spanish. The teaching of English were to be forbidden. After some bloody skirmishes, East L.A. split up into ethnic enclaves. Then some foreign government (say, Russian, or Chinese) stepped in and started shipping in weapons and providing training to the Latino faction, in support of their efforts to restore East L.A.'s "territorial integrity." As a non-Hispanic resident of East L.A., would you then (1) run and hide, (2) stay and fight, or (3) pick up a copy of "Spanish for Dummies" and start cramming?

The Abkhaz and the South Ossetians have made their preference very clear by applying for and being issued with a Russian passport. That's right, the majority of the present native population of these two "separatist enclaves" are bona fide citizens of the Russian Federation with all the privileges appertaining thereto. Lacking any other options, they are happy to accept protection from Russia, use Russian as their lingua franca, and fight for their right to be rid of Georgians once and for all. One of the privileges of being a Russian citizen at this stage, when Russia has recovered from its political and economic woes following the Soviet collapse, is that if some foreign entity comes and shells a settlement full of Russian citizens, you can be sure that Russia will open one amazingly huge can of whoop-ass on whoever it feels is responsible. Add to that the atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the Georgian forces, such as finishing off wounded Russian peacekeepers, and you can see why the normally shy and reticent Russian army might get behind the idea of making sure Georgia no longer poses a military threat to anyone. The Georgians have really done it to themselves this time, and we should all feel very sorry for them. They are not evil people, just incredibly misguided by their horrible national politicians. The West, and the US in particular, bear responsibility for enabling this bloodbath by providing them with arms, training, and encouraging them to fight for their "territorial integrity."

This, it will no doubt turn out, was the wrong thing to do. The term "Georgia's territorial integrity" has been bantered about and proffered lamely as an excuse for an untenable status quo for almost two decades now, with poor results. In the meantime, the territorial integrity of another semi-defunct state, Serbia has been sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics. Kosovo, which is Serbia's historical homeland, has been cleansed of Serbians, and alienated from Serbia proper. For those who are vague on the details of that conflict, here is a summary. Kosovo became majority-Albanian due to Albanians' higher birth rate. The Albanians then formed Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought Serbians for independence and lost. Albanians then fled en masse to Albania. The US and NATO then intervened, bombed Kosovo and Serbia, repatriated the refugees, and turned Kosovo into a UN protectorate. The next step from the West's point of view is to recognize Kosovo's independence, taking it away from Serbia forever.

If Kosovo is to Serbia as Abkhazia and South Ossetia are to Georgia, what, you might ask, is the key difference that mandates a different outcome for the latter? Well, there are quite a few (neither is Georgia's historical homeland, both fought for independence and won, both are populated by indigenous tribes rather than newcomers from across the border), but the most salient seems to be this one: Serbia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia are all BAD (aligned with Moscow) while Georgia is GOOD (aligned with the West and US, and wants to join NATO). Morality, which, I am sure, underpins Western and US foreign policy, dictates that the bad be punished, and the good rewarded. I submit to you that such self-serving logic is a political dead end, and that if senseless bloodshed is to be stopped and peace is to be restored to the Caucasus, Western and US leaders will have to activate several additional brain cells, and stop mindlessly repeating the meaningless phrase "Georgia's territorial integrity."