Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Corporate Rights and Wrongs

by Blaine Townsend

Trillium Asset Management (November 2003)

A century of corporate transgressions can be traced to two words: limited liability. These words define the legal canon which retards accountability of corporations in our system. There is no such restriction, however, on the constitutional protections corporations also enjoy. Until this basic imbalance is redressed, the world's ecology, human rights and capital markets will continue to be at odds.

Most scholars cite the 1886 Supreme Court case of Santa Clara versus the Southern Pacific Railroad as the turning point in a shift of power to corporations in our society. This ruling declared (without comment) that corporations were entitled to protection as "natural persons" under the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment gave citizenship to slaves and established due process and equality for individuals under the law. It is doubtful protecting the rights of Wal-Mart was what the authors had in mind.

The Santa Clara ruling, when combined with the limited liability laws that preceded it, gave corporations the powerful rights of individuals, without the corresponding responsibilities. Ever since, American corporations have managed to skirt the social contract. This is precisely what framers of the Constitution feared. Thomas Jefferson, in fact, tried to get "freedom from monopolies" protected as a constitutional right. Although he failed in this attempt, state legislators were still the only ones that could grant corporate charters until the late 19th century, and then only for specific projects.

Based on the litany of corporate ills exposed during the 21st century, it is clear Jefferson's fears were well founded. Just pick up a newspaper. This month it is financial services companies siphoning money from individual investors; last year it was high profile CEOs defrauding their shareholders and using the proceeds to influence elected officials.

But the rarefied protections corporations have enjoyed since the 19th century might not last forever. Today, massive demonstrations surround the meetings of the modern day Robber Barons, the World Trade Organization (WTO). People understand that the WTO gives corporations powers that trump local laws, and corporations are getting the message that growth at the expense of public health will be fiercely resisted.

Earlier this year, for example, two quiet townships in western Pennsylvania did something revolutionary. Outraged by toxic pollution from agribusiness, the townships declared they would refuse to recognize the rights of any corporation with a history of polluting. They were the first municipalities in this country to take such a stand.

The actions of these Pennsylvania farmers would no doubt have pleased Jefferson. The mere idea of the World Trade Organization, on the other hand, would have been beyond his most twisted, darkest imagination. The WTO and other international trade agreements extend the subjugation of individual rights from this country to the entire world.

Case in point: Twenty years ago a Texaco subsidiary dumped twenty billion gallons of toxic wastewater into the Ecuadorian rainforest. Today, ChevronTexaco claims that since the impoverished and suffering indigenous population hasn't actually proven anything in a court of law, the company must not have done anything wrong.

Limited liability law may be too imbedded to change easily, but the perpetuity of charters could be tied to local and social accountability. This would restore some protection against corporate abuse. The world wouldn't change over night, but it might make a New York based mutual fund company a little more reluctant to bilk investors; or an energy company located in largely Spanish speaking California a little more reluctant to pollute a Spanish speaking country.

Further, it would make it harder for goliath corporations to function. This would create new industries, technologies and jobs. In other words, plenty of money would be made. The money would just be spread around to many more (albeit smaller) companies and be made in a way that didn't recklessly mortgage the future of the planet. Any corporation opposed to that idea doesn't deserve protection.

After all, the rights protected in the Constitution of the United States were hard fought and hard won. They shouldn't be given away easily.

Bill Totten

Friday, April 29, 2005

The Fall of Saigon 1975

An Eye Witness Report

by John Pilger

The Independent (March 05 2005)

Thirty years ago, on 30 April 1975, John Pilger witnessed the last day of the longest war this century, in Vietnam. It was a day of chaos and black farce, of sorrow and liberation.

Saigon, April 1975. At dawn I was awake, lying under my mattress on the floor tiles, peering at my bed propped against the French windows. The bed was meant to shield me from flying glass; but if the hotel was attacked with rockets, the bed would surely fall on me. Killed by a falling bed: that somehow made sense in this, the last act of the longest-running black farce: a war that was always unnecessary and often atrocious and had ended the lives of three million people, leaving their once bountiful land petrified.

The long-awaited drive, by the legatees of Ho Chi Minh, to reunify Vietnam had begun at last, more than twenty years since the "temporary" division imposed at Geneva. On New Year's Day, 1975, the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) surrounded the provincial capital of Phuoc Binh, 75 miles from Saigon; one week later the town was theirs. Quang Tri, south of the Demilitarised Zone, and Phan Rang followed, then Bat Me Thout, Hue, Danang and Qui Nhnon in quick succession and with little bloodshed. Danang, once the world's greatest military base, was taken by a dozen cadres of the Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (the NLF, known as the Vietcong by the Americans) waving white handkerchiefs from the back of a truck. A United Press wirepicture of an American punching a South Vietnamese "ally" squarely in the face as the Vietnamese tried to climb on board the last American flight from Nha Trang to Saigon held a certain symbolism of what had gone before.

By mid-April, the end was in sight as the battle for Xuan Loc unfolded thirty miles to the north-west of Saigon, which itself was already encircled by as many as fifteen PAVN divisions armed with artillery and heatseeking missiles. On 20 April, Xuan Loc was captured by the PAVN. Only Saigon was now left.

Among the ribbons of refugees heading away from the fighting were embittered troops of the army of the US-backed Saigon regime, whose president and commander-in-chief, General Thieu, had acknowledged their defeat by fleeing to Taiwan with a fortune in gold. On 27 April, General Duong Van ("Big") Minh was elected president by the National Assembly with instructions to find a way to peace. It was "Big" Minh who in 1963 had helped to overthrow the dictator Ngo Dinh Diem and had sought, with his fellow officers, to negotiate a peace settlement with the NLF. When the Americans learned about this they bundled Minh out of office, and the war proceeded.

It was now eight o'clock; I hurried across Lam Som Square to get some urgently needed coffee. Saigon had been under rocket attack for two nights. One rocket had cut a swathe through half an acre of tiny, tightly packed houses in Cholon, the Chinese quarter, and the fire storm that followed had razed the lot. There were people standing motionless, as if in a tableau, looking at the corrugated iron which was all that remained of their homes. There were few reporters; yesterday's rockets were news, the first to fall on Saigon in a decade; today's rockets were not. A French photographer blundered across the smouldering iron, sobbing; he pulled at my arm and led me to a pyre that had been a kitchen.

Beside it was a little girl, about five, who was still living. The skin on her chest was open like a page; her arms were gutted and her hands were petrified in front of her, one turned out, one turned in. Her face was still recognisable: she had plump cheeks and brown eyes, though her mouth was burnt and her lips had gone completely. A policeman was holding her mother away from her. A boy scout, with a Red Cross armband, clattered across the iron, gasped and covered his face. The French photographer and I knelt beside her and tried to lift her head, but her hair was stuck to the iron by mortar turned to wax by the heat. We waited half an hour, locked in this one dream, mesmerised by a little face, trying to give it water, until a stretcher arrived.

Following the attacks the American Ambassador, Graham Martin, appeared on Saigon television and pledged that the United States would not leave Vietnam. He said, "I, the American Ambassador, am not going to run away in the middle of the night. Any of you can come to my home and see for yourselves that I have not packed my bags. I give you my word." America's last proconsul on the continent of Asia, Martin was a private, strong-willed and irascible man. He was also very sick; his skin was sunken and skeined grey from long months of pneumonia; his speech was ponderous and frequently blurred from the drugs he was taking. He chain-smoked, and conversations with him would be interrupted by extended bouts of coughing.

To describe Graham Martin as a hawk would be to attribute to that bird qualities of ferocity it does not have. For weeks he had told Washington that South Vietnam could survive with an "iron ring" around Saigon supplied by B-52s flying in relays back. But Martin could not ignore completely what he saw; he knew it was his job, and his job alone, to preside over the foreclosure on an empire which had once claimed two-thirds of Indo-China, for which his own son had died, nine years before. In the American embassy, a tree, one of many mighty tamarinds planted by the French a century before, dominated the lawns and garden outside the main foyer. The only other open space big enough for a helicopter to land had the swimming pool in the middle of it, and the helipad on the embassy roof was designed only for the small Huey helicopters. If a helicopter evacuation was called, only the marines' Chinook and Jolly Green Giant helicopters would be able to fly large numbers of people to the Seventh Fleet, thirty miles offshore, within the course of one day. The tree was Graham Martin's last stand. He had told his staff that once the tree fell, America's prestige would fall with it, and he would have none of it.

Tom Polgar was the CIA station chief. Unlike many of his predecessors, he was unusually well informed and he despaired openly of the Ambassador's stubbornness. When Thieu locked himself in the bunker beneath the presidential palace for three and a half days, refusing to resign or even to take any phone calls, it was Polgar, together with the French Ambassador, Jean-Marie Merrillon, who finally persuaded Graham Martin that he should intervene. To Martin, the felling of President Thieu became like the felling of the embassy tree: a matter of pride and "face", for himself and for America. The United States government had solemnly committed itself to Thieu and the southern state it had invented; he often said that his own son had died so that Thieu's "South Vietnam" could remain "free". On April 28 the NLF raised their flag on Newport bridge, three miles from the city centre. The monsoon had arrived early and Saigon now lay beneath leaden cloud; beyond the airport were long, arched bolts of lightning and the thunder came in small salvos as President Minh prepared to address what was left of his "republic". He stood at the end of the great hall in the presidential palace, which was heavy with chandeliers and gold brocade, and he spoke haltingly, as if delivering a hopeless prayer. He talked of "our soldiers fighting hard" and only, it seemed, as an afterthought did he call for a ceasefire and for negotiation. As he finished speaking, a succession of thunderclaps drowned his last words; the war was ending with a fine sense of theatre.

I walked quickly along Tu Do, the city's main street, as the lightning marched into the centre of the city. Half a dozen shops had closed since the day before, their owners having evacuated themselves to the bowling alley and gymnasium at Dodge City, the code-name for the old American command cocoon at Tan Son Nhut airport, where they paid handsomely for a place in the queue. The Indian tailor at No 24 Tu Do, "Austin's Fine Clothes", was morosely counting his dollars and cursing his radio for not picking up the BBC World Service news. I had known the tailor at Austin's for a long time, and our relationship had always been one of whispers and comic furtiveness, involving the handing over of one green note, which would be fingered, snapped, peered at and put up against the light, and the receiving of a carrier bag filled with best British Vietnamese piastres. (Britain's greatest export to South Vietnam was banknotes.)

Thunder pulverised the city as the tailor counted his money; he had at least 5,000 dollars in that drawer, today's and yesterday's takings, and his Indian passport protruded from his shirt pocket. "Communists respect passports", he said, patting his without knowing what they respected. He said Saigon would not fall for at least a month, which caused the Vietnamese assistant, whirring at his sewing machine behind the curtain, to laugh.

The thunder had a new sound, dry and metallic. It was gunfire. The city seemed to be exploding with weapons of every kind: small arms, mortars, anti-aircraft batteries. "I think we are being bombed", said the tailor, who flinched from his counting only to turn up the volume on his radio, which was tuned to the Voice of America's Oldies arid Goldies hour. For the next half-hour the shop itself seemed to be a target and I ensured that two walls stood between me and the street. The tailor, however, remained at his post and counted his dollars while the Voice of America played "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White", which was barely audible above the gunfire. It is a profoundly witless song, but I sang along with the tailor, and I shall probably never forget the words. In a far corner, like a wounded bird, an old Vietnamese woman clawed at the wall, weeping and praying. A joss stick and a box of matches lay on the floor in front of her; she could not strike the matches because her whole body was shaking with fear. After several attempts I was able to light it for her, only then realising the depth of my own fear.

The loud noises, including the thunder, stopped, and there was now only a crackle of small arms fire. "Thanks to the gentlemen who have bombed us", said the tailor, "the rate has just risen a thousand piastres". He opened the steel shutters, looked out and said, "OK, run!"

It seemed that all of Saigon was running, in spasms of controlled, silent panic. My own legs were melting, but they went as they never had before, and were given new life by an eruption of shooting outside the Bo Da cafe. A military policeman, down on both knees, was raking the other side of the street, causing people to flatten or fall; nobody screamed. A bargirl from the Miramar Hotel, wearing platform shoes, collided with the gutter, badly skinning her legs and her cheek. She lay still, holding her purse over the back of her head. On the far corner, opposite the Caravelle Hotel and outside a gallery which specialised in instant, hideous girlie paintings, a policeman sprayed the sky with his M-16 rifle. There was a man lying next to him, with his bicycle buckled around him.

Saigon was now "falling" before our eyes: the Saigon created and fattened and fed intravenously by the United States, then declared a terminal case; capital of the world's only consumer society that produced nothing; headquarters of the world's fourth greatest army, the ARVN, whose soldiers were now deserting at the rate of a thousand a day; and centre of an empire which, unlike the previous empire of the French who came to loot, expected nothing from its subjects, not rubber nor rice nor treasure (there was no oil), only acceptance of its "strategic interests" and gratitude for its Asian manifestations: Coca-Cola and Napalm.

At one o'clock in the morning, Graham Martin called a meeting of his top embassy officials to announce that he had spoken to Henry Kissinger, who had told him that the Soviet Ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, had promised to pass his (Kissinger's) message to Hanoi requesting a negotiated settlement with President Minh's government. Martin said Kissinger was hopeful that the Russians could arrange this. He said he wanted the evacuation by fixed-wing aircraft to continue for as long as possible, perhaps for 24 hours. It was shortly after four o'clock in the morning when scores of rockets fell on Tan Son Nhut airport, followed by a barrage of heavy artillery. The waiting was over; the battle for Saigon had begun. The sun rose as a ragged red backdrop to the tracer bullets.

A helicopter gunship exploded and fell slowly, its lights still blinking. To the east, in the suburbs, there was mortar fire, which meant that the NLF were in Saigon itself, moving in roughly a straight line towards the embassy. A six am meeting between Martin and his top officials was, said one of those in attendance, "a disaster". All of them, except Martin, agreed that they should start the evacuation immediately. Martin said no, he would not "run away", and announced to their horror that he would drive to Tan Son Nhut to assess the situation for himself. There was no more than a suspicion among the embassy staff that the last proconsul of the empire might, just might, have plans to burn with Rome. When the meeting ended in confusion, Polgar ordered that the great tamarind tree be chopped down.

The tree-cutters assembled, like Marlboro men run to fat. These were the men who would fell the great tamarind; a remarkable group of CIA officers, former Special Forces men (the Green Berets) and an assortment of former GIs supplied by two California-based companies to protect the embassy. They carried weapons which would delight the collector, including obsolete and adorned machine guns and pistols, and a variety of knives. However, they shared one characteristic; they walked with a swagger that was pure cowboy: legs slightly bowed, right hand hanging loose, fingers turned in and now and then patting the holster. They were issued with axes and a power saw, and secretaries from the embassy brought them beer and sandwiches. They were cutting down the Ambassador's tree without the Ambassador's approval.

At the same time, a fleet of cars and trucks pulled into the market outside the Botanical Gardens and Zoo, and quickly discharged their cargo: frozen steaks, pork chops, orange juice, great jars of pickles and maraschino cherries, cartons of canned butter beans and Chunkie peanut butter, Sara Lee cakes, Budweiser beer, Seven-Up, Wrigley's Chewing Gum, Have-A-Tampa plastic-tipped cigars and more, all of it looted from the Saigon commissary, which had been abandoned shortly after an NLF sapper unit strolled in Indian file past its rear doors. To the Saigonese, stealing from their mentors and patrons had become something of a cultural obligation, and there was a carnival air and much giggling as fast-melting T-bones were sold for a few cents. A pick-up truck discharged a dishwashing machine and a water cooler was quickly sold and driven away in a tri-shaw; the dishwasher was of the Blue Swan brand and on its box was the Blue Swan motto: "Only the best is right for our customers". The dishwasher was taken from its box and left on the road. Two hours later it was still there, unsold and stripped of vital parts, a forlorn monument to consumer enterprise in Vietnam.

Saigon was now under a 24-hour curfew, but there were people in the streets, and some of them were soldiers from the 18th ARVN Division which had fought well at Xuan Loc, on Highway One. We had been expecting them and awaiting the first signs of their anger as they watched the Americans preparing to leave them to their fate. That morning, when they first appeared in the centre of the city, they merely eyed foreigners, or robbed them, or fired into the air to relieve their frustration.

I walked back to the Caravelle Hotel where I was to meet Sandy Gall of Independent Television News (ITN); he and I were the "evacuation wardens" for the TCN Press, which meant Third Country Nationals, which meant everyone who was not American or Vietnamese. For some days Gall and I had concerned ourselves with the supremely eccentric task of trying to organise those representatives of the British, Canadian, Italian, German, Spanish, Argentinian, Brazilian, Dutch and Japanese press who wanted to be evacuated. The American embassy had distributed a 15-page booklet called SAFE, short for "Standard Instruction and Advice to Civilians in an Emergency". The booklet included a map of Saigon pinpointing "assembly areas where a helicopter will pick you up". There was an insert page which read: "Note evacuational signal. Do not disclose to other personnel. When the evacuation is ordered, the code will be read out on American Forces Radio. The code is: THE TEMPERATURE IN SAIGON IS 112 DEGREES AND RISING. THIS WILL BE FOLLOWED BY THE PLAYING OF I'M DREAMING OF A WHITE CHRISTMAS."

The Japanese journalists were concerned that they would not recognise the tune and wondered if somebody could sing it to them. At the Caravelle, Gall and I had nominated floor wardens who, at the first hint of yuletide snow in Saigon, were to ensure that reporters who were infirm, deaf, asleep, confined to a lavatory or to a liaison, would not be left behind. There was more than a modicum of self-interest in this arrangement; I had, and have, an affliction which has delivered me late for virtually every serious event in my life.

Two C-130 Hercules aircraft from Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines were over Tan Son Nhut. They were ordered not to land. Scouts sent to the perimeter of the airport reported that two platoons of PAVN infantry had reinforced the sappers in the cemetery a mile away; a South Vietnamese pilot had landed his F-5 fighter on the runway and abandoned it with its engine running; and a jeep-load of ARVN were now ramming one of their own C-130s as it tried to take off. "There are some three thousand panicking civilians on the runway", said General Homer Smith on the VHF. "The situation appears to be out of control".

Graham Martin, alone in his office, watched the tree fall and heard his CIA Station Chief cry, 'Timberrrr!' When Kissinger phoned shortly afterwards, in compliance with President Ford's wish that the American Ambassador should take the final decision on the evacuation, he listened patiently to an exhausted and ailing Graham Martin. At 10:43 am the order was given to "go with Option Four" (the helicopter evacuation; the other options had involved evacuation by sea and by air). But Martin remained steadfast in the belief that there was 'still time' to negotiate an "honourable settlement".

The Caravelle emptied without the knowledge of the Unofficial Joint TCN Warden. Nobody told me. Bing Crosby did not croon on my radio. When I emerged, the rooms looked like the Marie Celeste, with clothes, papers, toothbrushes left. I ran to my room, gathered my typewriter, radio and notes and jammed them into one small bag; the rest I left. Two room attendants arrived and viewed my frantic packing, bemused and slightly in awe. One asked, "Are you checking out, sir?" I said that I was, in a manner of speaking. "But your laundry won't be back till this evening, sir". I tried not to look at him. "Please ... you keep it ... and anything else you see". I pushed a bundle of piastres into their hands, knowing that I was buying their deference in the face of my graceless exit. After nine years, what a way to leave. But that I wanted to leave was beyond question; I had had my fill of the war.

Outside, Lam Son Square was empty, except far a few ARVN soldiers slouched in doorways and in the gutter. One of them walked briskly up Tu Do, shouting at me; he was drunk. He unholstered his revolver, rested it on an unsteady arm, took aim and fired. The bullet went over my head as I ran. A crowd was pressing at the gate of the American embassy; some were merely the curious who had come to watch the Americans' aerial Dunkirk, but there were many who gripped the bars arid pleaded with the marine guard to let them in and waved wax-sealed documents and letters from American officials. An old man had a letter from a sergeant who a long time ago had run the bar at the Air Force officers' club in Pleiku. The old man used to wash dishes there, and his note from the sergeant, dated 5 June 1967, read, "Mr Nha, the bearer of this letter, faithfully served the cause of freedom in the Republic of Vietnam". Mr Nha also produced a toy Texas ranger's star which one of the pilots at Pleiku had given to him. He waved the letter and the toy Texas ranger's star at the marine guard who was shouting at the crowd, "Now please don't panic ... please!" For as long as they could remember, these people, who worked for the Americans, had been told to fear the communists; now they were being told, with the communists in their backyards, that they should not panic.

The old man attempted to slide through the opening in the gate and was pushed to the ground by the marine who was telling them not to panic. He got up, tried again and was tackled by a second marine who propelled him outside with the butt of his rifle and hurled the Texas ranger's badge over the heads of the crowd.

Inside the embassy compound the marines and the cowboys were standing around the stump of the great tamarind tree. "OK, you tell me what we're gonna do about this immovable bastard?" said one of the cowboys into his walkie-talkie. "Take it easy, Jed", came an audible reply, "just you and the boys level it down by at least another foot, so there's plenty of room for the rotors. And Jed, get all those shavings swept up, or sure as hell they're gonna be sucked into the engines." So the marines and the cowboys went on swinging their axes at the stump, but with such mounting frustration and incompetence that their chopping became an entertainment for those both inside and outside the gate, and for the grinning French guards on the high wall of the French embassy next door.

There is in the Vietnamese language, which is given much to poetry and irony, a saying that "only when the house burns, do you see the faces of the rats". Here was Dr Phan Quang Dan, former deputy prime minister and minister responsible for social welfare and refugee resettlement, a man seen by Washington and by Ambassador Martin as the embodiment of the true nationalist spirit of South Vietnam. An obsessive anti-communist who was constantly making speeches exhorting his countrymen to stand and fight, Dr Phan Quang Dan was accompanied by his plump wife sweltering under a fur coat and by a platoon of bagmen whose bags never left their grip. The "beautiful people" of Saigon were also there, including those young men of military age whose wealthy parents had paid large bribes to keep them out of the Army. Although they were listed as soldiers on some unit's roster, they never reported for duty and their commanding officers more than likely pocketed their wages. They were called "ghost soldiers" and they continued to lead the good life in Saigon: in the cafes, on their Hondas, beside the pool at the Cercle Sportif, while the sons of the poor fought and died at Quang Tri, An Loc, and all the other places.

"Look, it is me ... let me in, please ... thank you very much ... hello, it is me!" The shrill voice at the back of the crowd outside the gate belonged to Lieutenant-General Dang Van Quang, regarded by his countrymen and by many Americans as one of the biggest and richest profiteers in South Vietnam. The marine guard had a list of people he could let in, and General Quang was on it. With great care, the guard helped General Quang, who was very fat, over the fifteen-foot bars and then retrieved his three Samsonite bags. The General was so relieved to be inside that he walked away, leaving his twenty-year-old son to struggle hopelessly in the crowd. There were two packets of dollars sagging from the General's jacket breast packet. When they were pointed out to him, he stuffed them back in, and laughed. To the Americans, General Quang was known as "Giggles" and "General Fats". Among the Americans in the embassy compound there was a festive spirit. They squatted on the lawn around the swimming-pool with champagne in ice buckets looted from the embassy restaurant, and they whooped it up; one man in a western hat sprayed bubbly on another and there was joyous singing by two aircraft mechanics, Frank and Elmer. Over and over they sang, to the tune of 'The Camp Town Races':

We're goin' home in freedom birds,

Doo dah, doo dah;;

We ain't goin' home in plastic bags,

Oh doo dah day.

"This is where I've come after ten years", said Warren Parker almost in tears. "See that man over there? He's a National Police official ... nothing better than a torturer." Warren Parker had been, until that morning, United States Consul in My Tho, in the Delta, where I had met him a week earlier. He was a quiet, almost bashful man who had spent ten years in Vietnam trying to "advise" the Vietnamese and puzzling why so many of them did not seem to want his advice. He and I pushed our way into the restaurant beside the swimming-pool, past a man saying, "No Veetnamese in here, no Veetnamese", where we looted a chilled bottle of Taylor New York wine, pink and sweet. The glasses had already gone, so we drank from the bottle. "I'll tell you something", he said in his soft Georgia accent, "if there ever was a moment of truth for me it's today. All these years I've been down there, doing a job of work for my country and for this country, and today all I can see is that we've succeeded in separating all the good people from the scum, and we got the scum."

At 3:15 pm Graham Martin strode out of the embassy lift, through the foyer and into the compound. The big helicopters, the Jolly Green Giants, had yet to arrive and the stump of the tamarind was not noticeably shorter, in spite of the marines' and cowboys' furious chopping and sawing. Martin's Cadillac was waiting for him and, with embassy staff looking on in shock, the Cadillac drove towards the gate, which was now under siege. The marine at the gate could not believe his eyes. The Cadillac stopped, the marine threw his arms into the air and the Cadillac reversed. The Ambassador got out and stormed past the stump and the cowboys. "I am going to walk once more to my residence", he exclaimed. "I shall walk freely in this city. I shall leave Vietnam when the President tells me to leave." He left the embassy by a side entrance, forced his own way through the crowd and walked the four blocks to his house. An hour and a half later he returned with his poodle, Nitnoy, and his Vietnamese manservant.

As the first Chinook helicopter made its precarious landing, its rotors slashed into a tree, and the snapping branches sounded like gunfire. "Down! Down!" screamed a corporal, high on methedrine, to the line of people crouched against the wall, waiting their turn to be evacuated, until an officer came and calmed him. The helicopter's capacity was fifty, but it lifted off with seventy. The pilot's skill was breathtaking as he climbed vertically to 200 feet, with bullets pinging against the rotors and shredded embassy documents playing in the downdraft. However, not all the embassy's documents were shredded and some were left in the compound in open plastic bags. One of these I have. It is dated May 25 1969 and reads, "Top Secret ... memo from John Paul Vann, counter insurgency ... 900 houses in Chau Doe province were destroyed by American air strikes without evidence of a single enemy being killed. The destruction of this hamlet by friendly American firepower is an event that will always be remembered and never forgiven by the surviving population ..."

From the billowing incinerator on the embassy roof rained money. I found it difficult to believe my eyes. The unreal and the real had merged. From the heavens came 20, 50 and 100 dollar bills. Most were charred; some were not. The Vietnamese waiting around the pool could not believe their eyes; former ministers and generals and torturers scrambled for their severance pay from the sky. An embassy official said that more than five million dollars were being burned. "Every safe in the embassy has been emptied and locked again", said an official, "so as to fool the gooks when we've gone".

At least a thousand people were still inside the embassy, waiting to be evacuated, although most of the celebrities, like "Giggles" Quang, had seen themselves on to the first helicopters; the rest waited passively, as if stunned. Inside the embassy itself there was champagne foaming on to polished desks, as several of the embassy staff tried systematically to wreck their own offices: smashing water coolers, pouring bottles of Scotch into the carpets, sweeping pictures from the wall. In a third-floor office a picture of the late President Johnson was delivered into a wastepaper basket, while a framed quotation from Lawrence of Arabia was left an the wall. The quotation read: "Better to let them do it imperfectly, than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their war, and your time is short".

It was approaching midnight. The embassy compound was lit by the headlights of embassy cars, and the jolly Green Giants were now taking up to ninety people each. Martin Garrett, the head of security, gathered all the remaining Americans together. The waiting Vietnamese sensed what was happening and a marine colonel appeared to reassure them that Ambassador Martin had given his word he would be the last to leave. It was a lie, of course. It was 2:30 am on April 30 when Kissinger phoned Martin and told him to end the evacuation at 3:45 am. After half an hour Martin emerged with an attache case, a suit bag and the Stars and Stripes folded in a carrier bag. He went in silence to the sixth floor where a helicopter was waiting. "Lady Ace 09 is in the air with Code Two". "Code Two" was the code for an American Ambassador. The clipped announcement over the tied circuit meant that the American invasion of Indo-China had ended. As his helicopter banked over Highway One, the Ambassador could see the headlights of trucks of the People's Army of Vietnam, waiting.

The last marines reached the roof and fired tear-gas canisters into the stairwell. They could hear the smashing of glass and desperate attempts by their former allies to break open the empty safes. The marines were exhausted and beginning to panic; the last helicopter had yet to arrive and it was well past dawn. Three hours later, as the sun beat down on an expectant city, tanks flying NLF colours entered the centre of Saigon. Their jubilant crews showed no menace, nor did they fire a single shot. They were courteous and bemused; and one of them jumped down, spread a map on his tank and asked amazed bystanders, "Please direct us to the presidential palace. We don't know Saigon, we haven't been here for some time." The tanks clattered into Lam Som Square, along Tu Do, up past the cathedral and, after pausing so that the revolutionary flag on their turrets could catch the breeze, they smashed through the ornate gates of the presidential palace where "Big" Minh and his cabinet were waiting to surrender. In the streets outside, boots and uniforms lay in neat piles where ARVN soldiers had stepped out of them and merged with the crowds. There was no "bloodbath", as those who knew little about the Vietnamese had predicted. With the invader expelled, this extraordinary country was again one nation, as the Geneva conference had said it had a right all those wasted years ago. The longest war of the 20th century was over.

Abridged from "Heroes" by John Pilger, Vintage Books, London; first published in 1975.

Bill Totten

Thursday, April 28, 2005

A Community Solution for Peak Oil

An interview with Megan Quinn

by Aric McBay (April 08 2005)

Megan Quinn is the Outreach Director of Community Service, Inc. Community Service is a non-profit organization founded in 1940 that has advocated for small, local communities as the most fulfilling, healthy way to live. It's lastest program, The Community Solution <1>, seeks to bring about the re-emergence of the small community and a more agrarian, low energy-use way of life, as the solution for "Peak Oil".

Megan is a recent graduate of Miami University in Oxford, where she studied Peak Oil and its implications for US foreign policy. As the Outreach Director, Megan organizes and gives public presentations on Peak Oil. She helped organize and served as master of ceremonies for the "First US Conference on Peak Oil and Community Solutions" in November 2004, which had over 200 participants. She is also the Project Coordinator for "Agraria" <2>, the development of a model post-oil community, and has travelled to Cuba working on a documentary for the organization.

Aric McBay: How do you think Peak Oil is going to play out in the world over the next couple of decades? Could you given us a possible scenario? What do you hope will happen? What do you worry will happen?

Megan Quinn: The next few decades will be a discontinuity in the course of human civilization and human evolution. From the start of the industrial revolution, humans have extracted greater and greater amounts of fossil fuels from the ground. (In turn, we have released greater and greater amounts of fossil fuels into the air as they are burned.) Yet over the course of the next few decades, we will reach the point at which the most fossil fuels will ever be extracted. From that point on, we will extract fewer and fewer amounts of fossil fuels until it takes more energy to extract the fossil fuels than they provide, or we decide that we will no longer extract them.

This represents a divergence point for human societies. The choice is this: we can continue to consume energy as we have by commandeering the world's fossil fuel resources from the rest of the world for a short time or we can commit to the "energy descent" and transition to a lifestyle that consumes much less energy. The first scenario will lead to resource wars, massive global famines and die-offs, continuing ecological devastation, the threat of climate change, and a temporary maintainence or enhancement of our "standard of living". In effect, this choice provides the present generation with a way to maintain their comfort and avoid change while at the same time dooming future generations, threatening the human species, and endangering the entire earth. The second scenario will require cooperation, hard work, and the sacrifice of some of our material comforts, but will allow human evolution to proceed in a more peaceful, harmonious way than with industrial civilization. By acknowledging that all of our natural resources are limited (fossil fuels, water, arable land, et cetera), we will seek to limit human consumption of these resources. So when fossil fuels begin to decline, we will decline with them, re-designing our lives and our communities to consume less energy.

Our most important fossil fuel, petroleum, will be the first to decline. According to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, oil production is expected to peak and decline around 2008. Natural gas will peak around 2020. While coal may last a few decades longer, the cost of extraction will rise as oil and natural gas become scarce. In addition, if coal is used as a replacement for oil and natural gas, twice as much would have to be used because the energy density is much lower for coal (not to mention the ensuing pollution).

When global oil production peaks, this means that supply will start to decrease. At the same time demand is ever soaring. This will result in an oil shortage. The price will skyrocket similar to oil crisis of 1970s in the US. However, this shock will occur worldwide and will never recover. Prices will continue to rise, never again reaching their pre-peak levels. According to Matt Simmons, oil investment banker and advisor to the Cheney Energy Task Force, oil prices are expected to reach $182 per barrel within the decade.

At first the world may not know the cause of global oil price volatility. The issue may be obscured for political motives or there may be an attempt to blame an easy target, such as oil companies or Middle East countries. However, as the world enters a deep recession, awareness may begin to rise and concerned citizens may organize for sweeping societal change. Primarily individuals, households, and small communities must begin producing more of their own food and other goods necessary to survival.

In this chaotic period of rising oil prices, prices will rise throughout the economy, particularly for food. Industrial agriculture relies on petroleum as the feedstock for pesticides and insecticides and the fuel for tractors, combines, and irrigation systems. In addition, natural gas is the feedstock for all commercial fertilizers. By the time the average calorie of food is produced in North America, it takes ten calories of fossil fuels. This doesn't include additional fossil fuel energy for packaging and transporting an average of 1200 miles. Any rise in fuel prices will mean rises in food prices and may result in localized food shortages. Because local networks of economic interdependence and specifically local food networks have been destroyed by a globalized food system, localities may have to reestablish such networks in this emergency situation.

My hope is that citizens of the world will realize what is happening when Peak Oil occurs and decide to relocalize their economies and societies to adapt to this new reality of declining fuel availability. Cooperation is required to create this new world of small, sustainable, self-reliant communities. Competition over the dwindling sources may bring us to the brink of extinction.

AM: I understand that you've recently spent time in Cuba, which suddenly lost most of its access to petroleum when the USSR collapsed. What were the effects of this there? What did Cubans do to adapt? What is the situation there now, and what kinds of solutions are in place for agriculture, transportation and so on?

MQ: (Excerpts from a 12/3/04 report on Cuba)

Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, upon whom Cuba had become dependent for its oil imports, Cuban society changed dramatically. Almost overnight Cuba, one of the most rapidly industrializing nations in Latin America, lost fifty percent of its oil, and the country was on the verge of starvation. Over the subsequent years, Cuba's GDP would drop by one third. In order to successfully weather the crisis, ideological and economic commitments became subordinate to survival. "Socialism or Death" became "A Better World is Possible", and Cuba became a model and inspiration to sustainability advocates around the world.

Because Cuba was dependent upon external energy inputs for its domestic food production, when Cuba lost their oil the system collapsed and many Cubans went hungry. In order to survive, they went from large scale, oil-intensive, chemical-industrial production, to small scale, local, organic agriculture. Petroleum-based food transportation from countryside to cities became increasingly supplemented with urban gardening. Roberto Perez of the Foundation for Nature and Humanity estimates that today fift to eighty percent of Havana's food comes from inside the city limits.

In most cases, Cubans took the initiative themselves, setting up community gardens in their neighborhoods to provide fresh, healthy, and local foods. At the Organoponico de Alamar, a neighborhood community agriculture project in the city of Havana, a worker's collective runs the farm, market, and restaurant. Hand tools and human labor save petroleum, vermiculture (worm cultivation) creates productive soil, drip irrigation conserves water, and diverse produce creates a bounty of foods to provide the neighborhood.

When there is not enough land for such large projects, neighborhoods plant rooftop gardens, have backyard farms, and even put raised beds on parking lots. An organization called the Foundation for Nature and Humanity (FANJ) started a program on sustainable urban development, which now provides Cubans with tools and training to produce their own food. Permaculture, a design system which emulates natural patterns and maximizes productivity, is being taught throughout Havana. The FANJ facility located in the Cerro province of Havana is a living permaculture laboratory and education center. Integrated into the system are rubber tires as planting beds, gerbils for their meat and manure, and grape vines providing fruit and cool shade.

Yet agriculture is not the only area affected by Cuba's oil crisis. Because the island's electricity is generated mostly from burning petroleum, the crisis caused massive blackouts throughout the country. In fact, there were times when Cubans only had a few hours a day of electricity for cooking, lighting, and appliances. Over the course of the next few years, Cubans were asked to conserve as much as possible and their energy awareness and frugality continues today.

Yet even as Cuba began finding and producing more oil domestically, the government began pursuing renewable energy programs that utilized solar and wind power. Cuba Solar, a division of Cuba Energia, was founded in order to research, develop, and implement solar energy programs. Another organization, Ecosol, was founded in 1997 to create a market for various renewable energy sources. Ecosol Solar, its solar division, has successfully installed 1.2 Megawatts of solar photovoltaics in both small household systems (200 Watt capacity) and large systems (15-50 kilowatt capacity). In all, this accounts for 5,500 photovoltaic systems over the course of just four years. In addition, the organization is developing hybrid generation concept, utilizing both wind turbines and photovoltaic panels, as well as solar thermal water heaters.

The initiatives of Ecosol Solar include programs which directly empower Cubans, as sixty percent of their installations go to social programs. One prominent example is the installment of solar photovoltaic panels to electrify 2,364 primary schools throughout rural Cuba. In addition, they are developing compact model solar water heaters that can be assembled in the field, water pumps powered by photovoltaic panels, and solar dryers.

Visiting the "Los Tumbos" solar-powered community in the mountainous Pinar Del Rio province demonstrates the positive impact that these strategies can have. Solar panels adorn rooftops of homes as well as the community school and television room. Electricity allows the community to gather for the evening "Round Table Discussions" broadcast on Cuban TV, which are government-run programs featuring debate on some of the most salient issues in the country and world. Besides keeping the residents informed, the television room has the added benefit of facilitating community coherence. Pursuing local, renewable strategies for food and energy production has helped Cuba successfully endure the oil crisis of the early 1990s and start on a path of ecological sustainability. How the Cubans were able to deal with such great challenges is perhaps of greater importance to us on the verge of our own imminent crisis.

Such a question inevitably takes us deeper into the history and culture of this unique place. The last Latin American country to achieve its independence, Cuba struggled long and hard against Spanish colonial oppression. Its independence hero, Jose Marti is not only a familiar face on sculptures throughout the country; he is an immortalized presence in the hearts of the Cuban people. Yet despite its independence in 1898, Cuba has had to keep an eye on its neighbor to the north, which went from serious considerations of annexation around the turn of the century to powerful economic and political influence up through the 1950s.

With this long history of foreign domination and control, the Cuban people maintain firm resolve to create their own destiny. In the troubling political realities of the century, this has meant the will to resist. "Resistir" is a value and ideal in Cuban society. It demonstrates the strength of the Cuban character and the determination of the Cuban people to overcome any obstacles they may face. Living under a forty-year US blockade has been the ultimate test of the ability of the Cuban people to "resistir".

This pervasive element of the Cuban psyche had a tremendous effect on their ability to deal with the crisis. As they had done before, Cubans would overcome their struggles by making the necessary sacrifices, working even harder, and employing their creative and ingenious talents. They accepted eighteen-hour per day blackouts, three hour work commutes, and scarce and meatless diets. They began doing whatever they could to scrape by, most successfully from seeking tourist tips. They created new mass transportation alternatives from bicycles, cars, trucks, trailers, and various scrap materials.

Relatedly, Cubans are an overwhelmingly optimistic people. While attending a meeting of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in a Havana neighborhood, a familiar phrase was spoken: "Sse puede". Translated this means, "Yes, it can be done", an acknowledgement of their proud past as much as their hopeful future (a theme also represented in Che's famous saying, "Hasta la victoria siempre", Until victory always).

A final element with an undoubted role in Cuba's crisis management is the sense of solidarity among the Cuban people. Through all of their struggles, the Cubans have stood together and relied on one another. Cuba's focus on creating an egalitarian society has enhanced the nation's solidarity, as has their resistance against a common enemy.

At a CDR meeting in a small neighborhood of Havana the critical ingredients of resistance, optimism, and solidarity manifested themselves in a powerful discourse on the value of community in Cuba and during the "Special Period". These neighborhood organizations represent the essence of Cuban society and provide a fundamental function for the community. "Without the CDRs we never would have made it through the crisis", according to one local CDR member. "They helped accomplish tasks in the neighborhood, got the neighbors together, and brought a sense of unity". He continued, "They distributed food, water, vitamins. Essentially, they provided big support in trying to get basic things to the people".

In a passionate statement a municipal CDR organizer clarifies the role of these organizations: "The success of our organization, in that it is a neighborhood organization, is the solidarity of the neighbors. It not only should be a revolutionary organization, the CDR concerns itself with the old woman that lives alone, the mother that lives alone with her children and has no help."

She continues, "If a CDR has divisions among its people, then the CDR looks for the unity between them". Her final statement was powerful: "We were created to defend the revolution and we will die defending the revolution".

As Cuba's crisis hit, the Cuban people came together in many effective, impressive, and beautiful ways. The spirit of community, which runs through the Cuban people, allowed them to successfully survive the crisis. Starting with food and energy, Cuba has made many beneficial changes to their society. Today they are on a more sustainable path than any "developing" nation in the world. We in America have much to learn from Cuba's successful transition. By assessing Cuba's response we know where we must begin. In addition, by studying their sense of community and the role of neighborhood organizations, we become empowered to work with our local communities. Like the Cubans, we can resist, we can look toward the future with hope, and we can draw together in solidarity to create a new and sustainable world.

AM: Have they adopted any of the "high tech" remedies that have been suggested for dealing with oil depletion, like gigantic wind generators or massive photovoltaic stations?

MQ: Please see explanation above of alternative energy. Though there are some systems that have been built (up to fifty kilowatts), the majority of renewable energy systems in Cuba are small. As is noted above, sixty percent of Ecosol Solar's installations are in small rooftop systems for schools and small towns. Because Cuba did not have the money to invest in such expensive systems, they instead relied on more local, cheap, and ingenious solutions. For example, one can see old trucks turned into taxis, bicycle taxis, and increasing hitchhiking as a way to deal with transportation problems. (Go to the solution page of our website here for more info on Cuba and some pictures):

AM: I'm fascinated by the Cuban CDRs. How do you think we can learn from their example for implementing our own solutions where we live?

MQ: CDRs, or "Committees for the Defense of the Revolution" are neighborhood organizations throughout Cuba. They are about as large as one city block. Neighbors get together for frequent meetings and parties no less than once per month. It is a powerful social network that facilitates cooperation, care, and service among neighbors.

During the early years of the special period, the CDR structure was critical for the distribution goods to the people such as food, water and medicines. CDRs provide the opportunity to implement effective local solutions in times of social crisis.

CDRs are a good example of local communities taking responsibility and control over their well-being and their future. Rather than rely on a larger, more centralized entity such as city, state, or national government, CDRs work directly to take care of the need of their members. In this way, CDRs empower the neighbors to address the issues of their neighborhood, making this a highly democratic and effective system.

We can look at the CDR model as a way to organize our communities for local action. For example, we can begin talking to our neighbors about local food production and food storage. We can begin to prepare for any sudden resource shortages or other social crises. We can begin a grassroots campaign to purchase renewable electricity systems at the community level. Importantly, local solutions will be the most effective when cheap oil, and thus cheap transportation, come to an end after the global oil peak.

AM: People in general don't seem to like talking about Peak Oil or possibilities of industrial collapse. I think partly people find it scary, and also don't want to confront something that might call them to make big changes in their lives. It's easier to be complacent and let the "experts" and government deal with it. Do you have any suggestions on how to talk to neighbours, family or friends about this? Do you have any favourite, short primers on Peak Oil and related issues?

MQ: Great questions. The main reason that people don't want to talk about Peak Oil, industrial collapse, or ecological collapse is because they categorize these all as "doom and gloom" scenarios. We are labeled as pessimists and discounted. The reason for this is because people feel like their way of life is under attack and immediately get defensive. The best strategy is to explain why the post-oil, post-industrial world will be more peaceful, healthy, and happy. While our current way of life may seem to be prosperous, we in fact are living in temporary material abundance at the expense of many of those in the rest of the world and future generations. Living cooperatively is a more socially and spiritually fulfilling way to live.

The first thing that people need to do is take complete responsibility for their lifestyles, including the energy and material inputs that feed their everyday lives and the wastes that they generate. Even the act of watching TV for one hour burns twenty pounds of coal in the process. After understanding the costs associated with our modern lives, we will begin to reduce the fossil fuel inputs in all our food, clothing, and other products and reduce the amount of pollutants that leave us. In other words, we take responsibility of all that flows into us and all that flows out of us.

The way that I talk to friends and family is to slowly introduce them to peak oil itself without offering any solution. Coming out with it all at once may backfire and they may close off. "The End of Suburbia" documentary is a great place to start because it offers credibility and is an easily accessible format for people to understand oil depletion and why the American way of life is unsustainable. Other short primers on peak oil are available all over the web. Sometimes it is good to let people search them on their own. For suggestions, I like and Good primers are available at the ASPO website ( and at For a longer discussion, "The Party's Over" by Richard Heinberg is excellent, as is "The Coming Oil Crisis" by Colin Campbell.

Once they understand that the problem is real they will most likely just express their faith in technology and the government to take care of the situation. It is at this point that it is necessary to explain the benefits of changing our way of life - to live more sustainably, simply, and with closer ties to our local communities. In explaining this solution it is important that your passion comes through - for this is no longer a technical discussion of energy and technology - it is compassionate discussion of living in a way that honors the earth, our fellow human beings, and future generations. People will understand peak oil through their minds but will only understand and commit to this solution through their hearts. Be an example. Share the joy of your new lifestyle with them. Be patient. We cannot easily withdraw from industrial society overnight. It takes a lot of effort and inconvenience but the mere act is very healing and nourishing to the spirit.

AM: Once people understand the basic energy situation, what are some of the most important things people can do about it?

MQ: Once you understand the basic global energy situation you must first analyze your personal energy budget. How much energy do you use in a typical day? From what sources does this energy come? What are the main areas of energy use? What machines or products that you purchase/use have the most embedded energy? Some of these questions may be difficult to answer do the lack of data, but you can make some guesses. From that point you can begin to identify areas where you can reduce energy use. For example, buying local, fresh, seasonal food drastically reduces the embedded energy that you would consume in frozen, packaged, long-distance food. Another example is sharing a car. This reduces the embedded energy in the manufacture and maintenance of the car and the oil energy used to make more frequent trips (experience shows that those who use car co-ops or car-sharing plan their trips more wisely and efficiently). Have a plan to reduce your energy use by 25% in the first year and continue setting similar goals.

In addition to this gradual reduction in energy use, begin learning the survival skills necessary if your fossil fuel energy use had to drop to nearly zero overnight. How would you get food, water, heat, et cetera? By thinking about basic necessities you can begin to simply your life all-around.

Finally, share your experience with as many of your friends and family as possible. Involve them in the process and show them what this means to you. Show them that the experience can be rewarding socially as you build new relationships, physically as you develop strength and stamina, intellectually as you learn new skills and confidence, and spiritually as you re-connect to the natural world.

AM: Do you have any favourite sources for information about reducing your energy dependence, and for rapid-collapse survival skills?

MQ: To reduce energy dependence we must live simpler, less consumptive lifestyles. The Voluntary Simplicity movement has many resources in this regard. There are many books available as well as information from the Simply Living Network. Also I would recommend training in Permaculture, either through the available books and magazines, or by taking a Permaculture Design course. Permaculture is a design system based upon the principles of sustainability that looks at all of the elements of our lifestyle, including food, energy, and waste. By understanding the basics we can maximize our resources while preserving them and create productive, sustainable, and edible landscapes on a small scale.

To develop rapid-collapse survival skills you should start learning more about your ecological community. Buy plant identification guides and begin learning which wild plants grow in your area and their various uses. Particularly, learn which plants are edible and begin learning how to identify them in the wild, harvest them, and prepare them naturally. You may also find useful books on the medicinal value of various plants. Also I would learn how to make various animal traps and how to prepare the meat and use the other parts of the animal. There are many survival guides and identification manuals available for this information. The key is to begin studying, refining your survival skills, and testing them.

AM: Can you tell us a little about your group, The Community Solution?

MQ: The Community Solution is a program of Community Service, Inc that has been studying Peak Oil and the coming changes. We advocate for a transition to small, sustainable communities due to resource depletion and environmental/social degradation. We are focused on public education about Peak Oil through our website, our quarterly newsletter New Solutions, and our annual conference. We are currently developing a Peak Oil Speaker Training Program, a model post-oil community we call "Agraria", a documentary on Peak Oil, Cuba, and Community, and an Energy Information System so people can reduce their energy use as efficiently and immediately as possible. To join, memberships are $25 for the year. For more information, contact us at, 937-767-2161, or PO Box 243, Yellow Springs, Ohio 45387.

AM: Is there anything you'd like to add?

MQ: The future holds immense challenges and we must prepare to meet them. We are all here at this critical time in the history of the earth and the human species in order to facilitate the transition to a new world and a new way of living. What will be the greatest challenge is also the greatest opportunity. We should be grateful to be alive in these exciting times. Always be aware of your impact and your purpose.

Remember the lessons of our industrial past, but do not long for it - for it is gone. Be mindful of the future and the generations to come, but do not dwell there - for it has not yet arrived. Enjoy the present and the gift of life that flows through you. Survival is the essence of life.


<1> See

<2> See

Bill Totten

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

A Different Kind of Revolution

Wind power is a technological fix for a political problem.

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (April 26 2005)

The people fighting the new wind farm in Cumbria have cheated and exaggerated. They appear to possess little understanding of the dangers of global warming. They are supported by an unsavoury coalition of nuclear power lobbyists and climate change deniers. But it would still be wrong to dismiss them.

The Whinash project, on the edge of the Lake District National Park, will, if it goes ahead, be the biggest onshore wind farm in Europe, producing, according to the developers, enough electricity for 47,000 homes. <1> Without schemes like this, there is no chance of meeting the government's target of a twenty percent cut in carbon emissions by 2010. Onshore wind turbines are currently the cheapest means of producing new power without fossil fuels, but at the moment they account for just 0.32% of our electricity. <2> Faced with the global emergency of climate change, it would be criminally irresponsible not to build more. The public inquiry which will decide whether or not the Whinash farm should go ahead, and which will help determine the future course of our national energy policy, began last week.

Last year the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the No Whinash Windfarm campaign had exaggerated the size and number of the turbines, and the impact they would have on tourism and house prices. <3> Among those who have been supporting the exaggerators are the organisation Country Guardians and the former environmentalist David Bellamy. Country Guardians was co-founded by Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's press secretary and a consultant to the nuclear industry. David Bellamy is now the country's foremost climate change denier. (He was at it again last week, claiming, in a letter to New Scientist, that the World Glacier Monitoring Service says 89% of the world's glaciers are growing. <4> Its most recent report shows that 82 of the 88 surveyed in 2003 are shrinking <5>.)

But we should try not to judge a cause by its supporters. There are several things which make me uncomfortable about wind energy, and the way in which it is being promoted.

Wind farms, while necessary, are a classic example of what environmentalists call an "end of the pipe solution". Instead of tackling the problem - our massive demand for energy - at source, they provide less damaging means of accommodating it. Or part of it. The Whinash project, by replacing energy generation from power stations burning fossil fuel, will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 178,000 tonnes per year. <6> This is impressive, until you discover that a single jumbo jet, flying from London to Miami and back every day, releases the climate change equivalent of 520,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. <7> One daily connection between Britain and Florida costs three giant wind farms.

Alternative technology permits us to imagine that we can build our way out of trouble. By responding to one form of over-development with another, we can, we believe, continue to expand our total energy demands without destroying the planetary systems required to sustain human life. This might, for a while, be true. But it would soon require the use of the entire land surface of the United Kingdom.

Consider, for example, the claims being made for hydrogen fuel cells. Their proponents believe that this country's vehicles could all one day be run on hydrogen produced by electricity from wind power. I am not sure that they have any idea what this involves. I haven't been able to find figures for the UK, but a rough estimate for the United States suggests that the same transformation would require a doubling of the capacity of the national grid. <8> If the ratio were the same over here, that would mean a 600-fold increase in wind generation, just to keep our wheels turning. If we were to seek to compensate for the emissions produced elsewhere, there is no end to it. The government envisages a rise in British aircraft passengers from 180 million to 476 million over the next 25 years. <9> That means a contribution to global warming equivalent to the carbon savings of 1094 Whinash's. <10>

There is, in other words, no sustainable way of meeting the current projections for energy demand. The only strategy in any way compatible with environmentalism is one led by a vast reduction in total use. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, who support the new wind farm, make this point repeatedly, but it falls on deaf ears. What is acceptable to the market, and therefore to the government, is an enhanced set of opportunities for capital, in the form of new kinds of energy generation. What is not acceptable is a reduced set of opportunities for capital, in the form of a massively curtailed total energy production. It is not their fault, but however clearly the green groups articulate their priorities, what the government hears is "more windfarms", rather than "fewer flights".

I would like to see the green NGOs publish a statement about where this kind of development should stop. At what point will they say that too many windfarms are being built, and ask the government to call a halt? At what point does the switch to the decentralised, micro-generation projects they envisage take place?

I would also feel happier if environmentalists dropped the pretence that wind farms are beautiful. They are not. They are merely less ugly and less destructive than most of the alternatives. They are a lot less ugly than climate change, which threatens to wreck the habitats the anti-wind campaigners are so keen to preserve. We have to build them, but I think it would be more honest to recognise that they are a necessary evil.

But these are not the only ways in which environmentalists' support for windfarms makes me squirm. The joint statement about the Whinash project published by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth complains that "opponents of the scheme, which would be sited beside the M6 motorway, have claimed that the wind turbines will spoil the views, failing to acknowledge that the presence of a motorway has degraded the landscape". <11> It quotes Friends of the Earth's energy campaigner Jill Perry, who says, "I'm amazed that people are claiming that the area should be designated a National Park. What kind of National Park has a motorway running through it?" Well the New Forest and South Downs national parks, for a start. <12> Their creation was supported by Friends of the Earth.

Elsewhere, these groups oppose the "infill" around new roads. Elsewhere, they argue that landscapes and ecosystems should be viewed holistically: that they do not stop, in other words, at an arbitrary line on the map, like the boundary of a national park. I understand that green campaigners are placed in an uncomfortable position when arguing for development rather than against it. But I do not understand why they have to sound like WalMart as soon as the boot is on the other foot.

I believe the Whinash windfarm should be built. But I also believe that those who defend it should be a good deal more sensitive towards the concerns of local objectors. Why? Because in any other circumstances they would find themselves fighting on the same side.


1. See for example Four Square Marketing Communications, 29th September 2003. Whinash Wind Farm Proposals Submitted for Approval. Press release issued on behalf of the Renewable Development Company Ltd.

2. Total wind generation (onshore and offshore) in the UK for 2003 was 1,286 gigawatt hours (GWh).
Total electricity generation in the UK for 2003 was 398,360 GWh.

3. Advertising Standards Authority, 28th April 2004. Adjudication on 'No Whinash Windfarm'.

4. David Bellamy, 16th April 2005. Glaciers Are Cool. New Scientist Vol 186 No 2495.

5. See the mass balance data published at the bottom of the following page:

6. Friends of the Earth, 13th April 2005. Wind Farm Inquiry to Test Climate Change Commitment. Press release.

7. calculates the warming effect equivalent of the greenhouse gas emissions per seat of a fully occupied jumbo jet on a return trip at 3851kg. It assumes a total of 370 seats. 3851×370 = 1,425,000 kg. 1425t x 365 = 520,125 t/year

8. See letter from Hugh Williams, 6th September 2003. Hydrogen Hype. New Scientist Vol 179 No 2411.

9. Select Committee on Environmental Audit, 10th March 2004. Pre-Budget Report 2003: Aviation Follow-up.

10. The committee gives a total projected carbon weight from aviation in 2030 of 17.7mt. The ratio of global warming effect to CO2 tonnage given by is 11 (a 3851kg warming effect from 350kg of CO2). This takes into account greenhouse gases other than carbon and the radiative forcing effect of CO2 released in the upper atmosphere. 11×17.7 = 194.7 mt. 194,700,000 ~ 178,000 = 1093.8.

11. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, 20th April 2005. Leading green groups support Lake District wind farm.

12. The proposed South Downs National Park is clipped by the M3.
The M27 runs into the New Forest National Park.

Bill Totten

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

No Free Lunches for Pensioners

Bush's deceptive plans for the US social security system show why privatisation is not the answer to the global pensions crisis

by Joseph Stiglitz, Guardian/UK (April 19 2005)

It is almost an optical illusion: looming on Japan's horizon, and on Europe's and on America's, is a pensions crisis. The problem is real, though exaggerated. The illusion is in some of the plans being devised to deal with it.

The main question is whether privatising pension systems, as George Bush has proposed for social security in the United States, would solve the problem or merely make matters worse. With many countries pondering whether to adopt variants of the Bush plan, the question requires careful examination.

By itself, privatisation is clearly not the solution. America's troubled private pension system - now several hundred billion dollars in debt - already appears to be heading for a government bail-out. There was a time when privatisation - allowing individuals to set up individual savings accounts - seemed better than social security, which invests in lower-yielding Treasury bills (government bonds). Advocates of privatisation argued that funds would do much better if invested in stocks, predicting a return of nine percent.

But the stock market does not guarantee returns; it does not even guarantee that the stock values will keep up with inflation - and there have been periods in which they have not. America's social security system insulates individuals against the vagaries of the market and inflation, providing a form of insurance that the private market does not offer.

It does so with remarkable efficiency. The costs of managing the social security system are far smaller than those likely to be associated with privatised accounts. This is understandable: private investment firms spend an enormous amount on marketing and salaries.

It is possible that to reduce these transaction costs, Bush will propose restricting choice, which was the main argument for privatisation in the first place. But these limited kinds of choices - for example, a T-bill fund with ninety percent in T-bills and ten percent in an indexed stock fund - could easily be introduced into the public social security system.

Bush says that reform is urgently needed, because the system will be insolvent in about a quarter of a century. But the problem depends on America's growth rate: if the growth rates of the late 1990s return, there is no problem. Even if there is a problem, it can easily be fixed: spending a fraction of the money that went into Bush's two tax cuts would have fixed social security for 75 years; slight benefit cuts, adjusting the age of retirement, or minor adjustments in the level of contributions could fix the system permanently.

Moreover, Bush's proposals won't fix social security - unless they are accompanied by drastic benefit cuts. For how could they? He proposes diverting almost a third of the social security tax to private accounts. That means less money coming in. If benefits are not reduced, the gap between receipts and expenditures will increase. One doesn't need a Nobel prize to figure that out.

So privatisation would not protect retirees against the social security system's insolvency; it would merely add enormously to today's fiscal deficit, because partial privatisation entails diverting money to private funds that would have been used to close the gap between government expenditures and revenue.

The anticipated increase in the fiscal deficit is striking. The central plan discussed by Bush's council of economic advisers would - according to the council's own estimates - increase America's fiscal deficit by two trillion dollars over the next decade. Advocates of privatisation claim to believe in markets, but they are proposing budget gimmickry that would move those losses off the books, as if markets could be easily fooled.

America and the world should remember: Argentina's privatisation of its pension system was at the centre of its recent fiscal woes. Had Argentina not privatised, its budget would have been roughly in balance. The US is starting on its privatisation venture with a fiscal deficit of four percent of GDP.

Privatisation advocates insist, however, that investments in stocks would yield sufficiently higher returns to give individuals the same retirement income as before, with the surplus used to fill the gap. But if markets are working well, then returns will be higher only because risk is higher. There is still no free lunch in economics.

With higher risk, there is a chance that, forty years from now, many individuals will find themselves with less than they need to retire. But if one really thinks that free lunches exist, there is still no reason to privatise: the government could get the additional returns by investing in the stock market itself. Indeed, President Clinton proposed doing just that.

With increased transaction costs, worsening solvency for the system, increased budget deficits and decreasing benefits and security for retirees, why the drive for privatisation? One reason is the interest financial markets have in grabbing a piece of all those transaction costs. A second is the Bush administration's ideological hostility to the modest amount of wealth redistribution implied by the public system. America's social security programme has been so successful in reducing poverty because the poor get back a little more than they contribute, and the rich get back a little less.

Even with social security's mildly redistributive effect, poverty and inequality in America are increasing. Privatisation will only make matters worse.

Bush has tried to scare America about the magnitude of the problem, and he has tried to fool America about how privatisation would solve it. The social security deficit pales by comparison with the deficits created by Bush's huge tax cuts for upper-income Americans or in comparison with the deficit in Medicare, which provides healthcare for the aged. Why has he ignored these problems? Is there another agenda?

Joseph Stiglitz is professor of economics at Columbia University and a Nobel prize winner. Project Syndicate,,1462945,00.html

Bill Totten

Four Big Lies About Social Security

Bush Administration is once again selling us a pig in a poke,
promising it'll make bacon

by Farnum Brown

Trillium Asset Management (March 2005)

In signature style, the Bush Administration is once again selling us a pig in a poke, promising it'll make bacon. As with Iraq, the Administration's proposals for "reforming" Social Security are a tissue of lies designed to promote a radical policy agenda while masking it from the public.

At the heart of the President's plan is a proposal to allow taxpayers to divert a portion of their social security taxes to private accounts they can invest in stocks. The Administration rests its case for private accounts on Four Big Lies.

Lie #1: Social Security faces a crisis that demands immediate, dramatic measures.

Social Security is "in crisis" in much the way that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. That is, as useful fiction. The facts of the matter are these. As the baby boom generation retires, there will come a point when there aren't enough workers still paying Social Security taxes to cover the boomers' Social Security benefits. This will happen around 2018.

At that point a Social Security trust fund, which has been collecting surplus taxes to meet this shortfall, will have to be tapped. By using the trust fund to supplement revenues the Government can pay all Social Security benefits for four decades or so. At the point when the trust fund is exhausted, Social Security revenues would cover only about 75% of the benefits currently promised by the system.

As any honest analyst will agree, fixing this problem doesn't require heroic efforts. Over time you could make small changes in one or more of the following ways: a) Increase the age at which Social Security benefits commence; b) raise the cap for income that's subject to Social Security tax; c); reduce benefits; d) increase the Social Security tax rate. In 1981, the last time the system needed tweaking, President Reagan chose "a" and "d". President Bush could do the same.

Of course there's a simpler solution still. Congress could repeal the tax cuts for the richest 1% of Americans that President Bush pushed through in his first term and redirect those revenues to Social Security. That would do the trick. But the President doesn't favor
this solution.

Lie #2: Private Accounts will save Social Security.

In the debate over Social Security this canard is doing the work that "Saddam attacked the World Trade Center" did in the prelude to war in Iraq. More insinuated than asserted, the notion has a simplicity and emotional appeal that sell the Administration's proposals despite being patently false. David Walker, Comptroller General of the non-partisan US Government
Accountability Office (GAO), put it most plainly: "The creation of private accounts for Social Security will not deal with the solvency and sustainability of the Social Security Fund". In fact, it will make things worse.

Think about it. By allowing taxpayers to divert up to a third of their Social Security taxes into private accounts the Government will reduce revenues to a Social Security Fund already "in crisis". And yet President Bush has vowed not to cut benefits for folks near retirement (55) at the time the plan takes effect. So on the Bush plan the Government faces the same benefit demands for a long time - twenty years anyway - while having even less tax revenues to meet them. The revenue shortfall caused by private accounts over the next twenty years would come to something in the $2 trillion range, which amount would have to be borrowed by the Government.

The real sucker punch is that even after putting future generations in hock for $2 trillion President Bush's plan doesn't "save" Social Security. Benefits will still have to be cut, a reality private accounts will only hasten.

Lie #3: Allowing individuals to divert Social Security taxes into stock investments will make up for reduced future Social Security benefits.

The kernel of truth in President Bush's plan is that stocks historically have earned much higher returns than bonds. This being the case, it makes sense that the Social Security trust fund assets could grow faster over time if they were invested in stocks and bonds instead of in bonds only, as has been the case. Faster growth of trust fund assets could offset a future decline in Social Security tax revenues and so support a higher level of benefit. This is a plausible argument. Only it happens not to be one for private accounts.

The Social Security Administration could itself invest a portion of trust fund assets in stocks just as it now does in bonds. While the Government might thus reap the benefits of superior stock returns, the odds of individuals doing so are much lower, for two main reasons. The first is cost.

The President's own Commission to Strengthen Social Security concluded the administrative costs of individual accounts would be ten to thirty times more than the costs of administering the current system. Which makes sense. You'll pay much lower fees on one vast account than you will on 150 million small ones. High administrative costs (plus outright gouging) have plagued private accounts in Chile and England, cutting deeply into the superior returns advertised for stocks.

Equally important is the disadvantage individuals face as decision-makers over their investments. Over twenty years of professional investment experience has shown us that most people - even highly educated, financially sophisticated people - are lousy decision-makers when it comes to investing. Most notoriously, they panic in market declines and sell their stock holdings, thinking they'll buy back in when the market is acting better.

Empirical studies have shown time and again that such tactics - if panic can be called a tactic - dramatically reduce the returns from stocks and thus their advantage versus bonds. The Federal Government could avoid such emotionalism by adopting a mandate that a fixed percentage of Social Security assets be invested in stocks at all times. So why doesn't President Bush simply let the Social Security Administration invest a portion of the trust fund in stocks, as President Clinton contemplated? Well, because.

Lie #4: It's your money.

By referring to the Social Security taxes Americans pay as "your money", the President shrewdly casts Social Security as a kind of savings plan. You pay a certain amount in; you get a certain amount back at retirement. If this were the whole story, one might well ask rhetorically, as the President does, why the Government should be handling "your money" that you've saved for retirement.

But Social Security wasn't devised as a savings plan. It was designed as an insurance plan to protect the elderly in our society from poverty. The Social Security taxes you pay are thus better thought of as insurance premiums than savings deposits. And there's a big difference. Indeed, it's the absolute crux of the matter.

Insurance plans reduce the cost of any one person dealing with a potential misfortune - whether car wrecks or cancer - by sharing the risk and cost of that misfortune with others. To work, an insurance plan has to have members who'll turn out not to need it. Their premiums go to pay the claims made by others who do. This is how Social Security works. A poor person who lives long can draw more in benefits than he ever paid in Social Security taxes while a rich person who dies young doesn't get any benefits for the taxes he paid.

This is what Republicans don't like about Social Security: It's an insurance policy that they, as the party of wealth, believe they'll never need. They'd much prefer to shoulder the cost of their old age through their own personal savings. And they want everyone else to do the same. This is what they're selling under the guise of private accounts and it amounts to a radical shift in policy from a plan where risks and costs are shared to one where they are not.

So the next time you hear President Bush talking about his vision of an "ownership society", remember that what he really has in mind is a society where you're on your own.

Bill Totten

Monday, April 25, 2005

Some Like It Hot

Forty public policy groups have this in common: They seek to undermine the scientific consensus that humans are causing
the earth to overheat. And they all get money from ExxonMobil.

by Chris Mooney

MotherJones Magazine (May/June 2005 Issue)

When novelist Michael Crichton took the stage before a lunchtime crowd in Washington, DC, one Friday in late January, the event might have seemed, at first, like one more unremarkable appearance by a popular author with a book to sell. Indeed, Crichton had just such a book, his new thriller, State of Fear. But the content of the novel, the setting of the talk, and the audience who came to listen transformed the Crichton event into something closer to a hybrid of campaign rally and undergraduate seminar. State of Fear is an anti-environmentalist page-turner in which shady ecoterrorists plot catastrophic weather disruptions to stoke unfounded fears about global climate change. However fantastical the book's story line, its author was received as an expert by the sharply dressed policy wonks crowding into the plush Wohlstetter Conference Center of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI).

In his introduction, AEI president and former Reagan budget official Christopher DeMuth praised the author for conveying "serious science with a sense of drama to a popular audience". The title of the lecture was "Science Policy in the 21st Century".

Crichton is an medical doctor with a basketball player's stature (he's 6 feet 9 inches), and his bearing and his background exude authority. He describes himself as "contrarian by nature", but his words on this day did not run counter to the sentiment of his AEI listeners. "I spent the last several years exploring environmental issues, particularly global warming", Crichton told them solemnly. "I've been deeply disturbed by what I found, largely because the evidence for so many environmental issues is, from my point of view, shockingy flawed and unsubstantiated". Crichton then turned to bashing a 1998 study of historic temperature change that has been repeatedly singled out for attack by conservatives.

There is overwhelming scientific consensus that greenhouse gases emitted by human activity are causing global average temperatures to rise. Conservative think tanks are trying to undermine this conclusion with a disinformation campaign employing "reports" designed to look like a counterbalance to peer-reviewed studies, skeptic propaganda masquerading as journalism, and events like the AEI luncheon that Crichton addressed. The think tanks provide both intellectual cover for those who reject what the best science currently tells us, and ammunition for conservative policymakers like Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who calls global warming "a hoax".

This concerted effort reflects the shared convictions of free-market, and thus antiregulatory, conservatives. But there's another factor at play. In addition to being supported by like-minded individuals and ideologically sympathetic foundations, these groups are funded by ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company. Mother Jones has tallied some forty organizations funded by ExxonMobil <1> that either have sought to undermine mainstream scientific findings on global climate change or have maintained affiliations with a small group of "skeptic" scientists who continue to do so. Beyond think tanks, the count also includes quasi-journalistic outlets like Tech (a website providing "news, analysis, research, and commentary" that received $95,000 from ExxonMobil in 2003), a columnist, and even religious and civil rights groups.

In total, these organizations received more than $8 million between 2000 and 2003 (the last year for which records are available; all figures below are for that range unless otherwise noted). ExxonMobil chairman and CEO Lee Raymond serves as vice chairman of the board of trustees for the AEI, which received $960,000 in funding from ExxonMobil. The AEI-Brookings Institution Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, which officially hosted Crichton, received another $55,000. When asked about the event, the center's executive director, Robert Hahn - who's a fellow with the AEI - defended it, saying, "Climate science is a field in which reasonable experts can disagree". (By contrast, on the day of the event, the Brookings Institution posted a scathing critique of Crichton's book.)

During the question-and-answer period following his speech, Crichton drew an analogy between believers in global warming and Nazi eugenicists. "Auschwitz exists because of politicized science", Crichton asserted, to gasps from some in the crowd. There was no acknowledgment that the AEI event was part of an attempt to do just that: politicize science. The audience at hand was certainly full of partisans. Listening attentively was Myron Ebell, a man recently censured by the British House of Commons for "unfounded and insulting criticism of Sir David King, the Government's Chief Scientist". Ebell is the global warming and international policy director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which has received a whopping $1,380,000 from ExxonMobil.

Sitting in the back of the room was Christopher Horner, the silver-haired counsel to the Cooler Heads Coalition who's also a CEI senior fellow. Present also was Paul Driessen, a senior fellow with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow ($252,000) and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise ($40,000 in 2003). Saying he's "heartened that ExxonMobil and a couple of other groups have stood up and said, 'this is not science'", Driessen, who is white, has made it his mission to portray Kyoto-style emissions regulations as an attack on people of color - his recent book is entitled Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death. See "Black Gold?" <2>. Driessen has also written about the role that think tanks can play in helping corporations achieve their objectives.

Such outlets "can provide research, present credible independent voices on a host of issues, indirectly influence opinion and political leaders, and promote responsible social and economic agendas", he advised companies in a 2001 essay published in Capital PR News. "They have extensive networks among scholars, academics, scientists, journalists, community leaders and politicians ... You will be amazed at how much they do with so little".

Thirty years ago, the notion that corporations ought to sponsor think tanks that directly support their own political goals - rather than merely fund disinterested research - was far more controversial. But then, in 1977, an associate of the AEI (which was founded as a business association in 1943) came to industry's rescue. In an essay published in the Wall Street Journal, the influential neoconservative Irving Kristol memorably counseled that "corporate philanthropy should not be, and cannot be, disinterested", but should serve as a means "to shape or reshape the climate of public opinion".

Kristol's advice was heeded, and today many businesses give to public policy groups that support a laissez-faire, antiregulatory agenda. In its giving report, ExxonMobil says it supports public policy groups that are "dedicated to researching free market solutions to policy problems". What the company doesn't say is that beyond merely challenging the Kyoto Protocol or the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act on economic grounds, many of these groups explicitly dispute the science of climate change. Generally eschewing peer-reviewed journals, these groups make their challenges in far less stringent arenas, such as the media and public forums.

Pressed on this point, spokeswoman Lauren Kerr says that "ExxonMobil has been quite transparent and vocal regarding the fact that we, as do multiple organizations and respected institutions and researchers, believe that the scientific evidence on greenhouse gas emissions remains inconclusive and that studies must continue". She also hastens to point out that ExxonMobil generously supports university research programs - for example, the company plans to donate $100 million to Stanford University's Global Climate and Energy Project. It even funds the hallowed National Academy of Sciences.

Nevertheless, no company appears to be working harder to support those who debunk global warming. "Many corporations have funded, you know, dribs and drabs here and there, but I would be surprised to learn that there was a bigger one than Exxon", explains Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which, in 2000 and again in 2003, sued the government to stop the dissemination of a Clinton-era report showing the impact of climate change in the United States. Attorney Christopher Horner - whom you'll recall from Crichton's audience - was the lead attorney in both lawsuits and is paid a $60,000 annual consulting fee by the CEI. In 2002, ExxonMobil explicitly earmarked $60,000 for the CEI for "legal activities".

Ebell denies the sum indicates any sort of quid pro quo. He's proud of ExxonMobil's funding and wishes "we could attract more from other companies". He stresses that the CEI solicits funding for general project areas rather than to carry out specific sponsor requests, but admits being steered (as other public policy groups are steered) to the topics that garner grant money. While noting that the CEI is "adamantly opposed" to the Endangered Species Act, Ebell adds that "we are only working on it in a limited way now, because we couldn't attract funding".

ExxonMobil's funding of think tanks hardly compares with its lobbying expenditures - $55 million over the past six years, according to the Center for Public Integrity. And neither figure takes much of a bite out of the company's net earnings - $25.3 billion last year. Nevertheless, "ideas lobbying" can have a powerful public policy effect.

Consider attacks by friends of ExxonMobil on the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). A landmark international study that combined the work of some 300 scientists, the ACIA, released last November, had been four years in the making. Commissioned by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that includes the United States, the study warned that the Arctic is warming "at almost twice the rate as that of the rest of the world", and that early impacts of climate change, such as melting sea ice and glaciers, are already apparent and "will drastically shrink marine habitat for polar bears, ice-inhabiting seals, and some seabirds, pushing some species toward extinction". Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) was so troubled by the report that he called for a Senate hearing.

Industry defenders shelled the study, and, with a dearth of science to marshal to their side, used opinion pieces and press releases instead. "Polar Bear Scare on Thin Ice", blared columnist Steven Milloy, an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute ($75,000 from ExxonMobil) who also publishes the website Two days later the conservative Washington Times published the same column. Neither outlet disclosed that Milloy, who debunks global warming concerns regularly, runs two organizations that receive money from ExxonMobil. Between 2000 and 2003, the company gave $40,000 to the Advancement of Sound Science Center, which is registered to Milloy's home address in Potomac, Maryland, according to IRS documents. ExxonMobil gave another $50,000 to the Free Enterprise Action Institute - also registered to Milloy's residence.

Under the auspices of the intriguingly like-named Free Enterprise Education Institute, Milloy publishes, a site that attacks the corporate social responsibility movement. Milloy did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article; a Fox News spokesman stated that Milloy is "affiliated with several not-for-profit groups that possibly may receive funding from Exxon, but he certainly does not receive funding directly from Exxon".

Setting aside any questions about Milloy's journalistic ethics, on a purely scientific level, his attack on the ACIA was comically inept. Citing a single graph from a 146-page overview of a 1,200-plus-page, fully referenced report, Milloy claimed that the document "pretty much debunks itself" because high Arctic temperatures "around 1940" suggest that the current temperature spike could be chalked up to natural variability. "In order to take that position", counters Harvard biological oceanographer James McCarthy, a lead author of the report, "you have to refute what are hundreds of scientific papers that reconstruct various pieces of this climate puzzle".

Nevertheless, Milloy's charges were quickly echoed by other groups. published a letter to Senator McCain from eleven "climate experts", who asserted that recent Arctic warming was not at all unusual in comparison to "natural variability in centuries past". Meanwhile, the conservative George C Marshall Institute ($310,000) issued a press release asserting that the Arctic report was based on "unvalidated climate models and scenarios ... that bear little resemblance to reality and how the future is likely to evolve". In response, McCain said, "General Marshall was a great American. I think he might be very embarrassed to know that his name was being used in this disgraceful fashion."

The day of McCain's hearing, the Competitive Enterprise Institute put out its own press release, citing the aforementioned critiques as if they should be considered on a par with the massive, exhaustively reviewed Arctic report: "The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, despite its recent release, has already generated analysis pointing out numerous flaws and distortions". The Vancouver-based Fraser Institute ($60,000 from ExxonMobil in 2003) also weighed in, calling the Arctic warming report "an excellent example of the favoured scare technique of the anti-energy activists: pumping largely unjustifiable assumptions about the future into simplified computer models to conjure up a laundry list of scary projections". In the same release, the Fraser Institute declared that "2004 has been one of the cooler years in recent history". A month later the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization would pronounce 2004 to be "the fourth warmest year in the temperature record since 1861".

Frank O'Donnell, of Clean Air Watch, likens ExxonMobil's strategy to that of "a football quarterback who doesn't want to throw to one receiver, but rather wants to spread it around to a number of different receivers". In the case of the ACIA, this echo-chamber offense had the effect of creating an appearance of scientific controversy. Senator Inhofe - who received nearly $290,000 from oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil, for his 2002 reelection campaign - prominently cited the Marshall Institute's work in his own critique of the latest science.

To be sure, that science wasn't always as strong as it is today. And until fairly recently, virtually the entire fossil fuels industry - automakers, utilities, coal companies, even railroads - joined ExxonMobil in challenging it.

The concept of global warming didn't enter the public consciousness until the 1980s. During a sweltering summer in 1988, pioneering NASA climatologist James Hansen famously told Congress he believed with "99 percent confidence" that a long-term warming trend had begun, probably caused by the greenhouse effect. As environmentalists and some in Congress began to call for reduced emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, industry fought back.

In 1989, the petroleum and automotive industries and the National Association of Manufacturers forged the Global Climate Coalition to oppose mandatory actions to address global warming. Exxon - later ExxonMobil - was a leading member, as was the American Petroleum Institute, a trade organization for which Exxon's CEO Lee Raymond has twice served as chairman. "They were a strong player in the Global Climate Coalition, as were many other sectors of the economy", says former GCC spokesman Frank Maisano.

Drawing upon a cadre of skeptic scientists, during the early and mid-1990s the GCC sought to emphasize the uncertainties of climate science and attack the mathematical models used to project future climate changes. The group and its proxies challenged the need for action on global warming, called the phenomenon natural rather than man-made, and even flatly denied it was happening. Maisano insists, however, that after the Kyoto Protocol emerged in 1997, the group focused its energies on making economic arguments rather than challenging science.

Even as industry mobilized the forces of skepticism, however, an international scientific collaboration emerged that would change the terms of the debate forever. In 1988, under the auspices of the United Nations, scientists and government officials inaugurated the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global scientific body that would eventually pull together thousands of experts to evaluate the issue, becoming the gold standard of climate science.

In the IPCC's first assessment report, published in 1990, the science remained open to reasonable doubt. But the IPCC's second report, completed in 1995, concluded that amid purely natural factors shaping the climate, humankind's distinctive fingerprint was evident. And with the release of the IPCC's third assessment in 2001, a strong consensus had emerged: Notwithstanding some role for natural variability, human-created greenhouse gas emissions could, if left unchecked, ramp up global average temperatures by as much as 5.8 degrees Celsius (or 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2100. "Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science", wrote Science Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy in a 2001 editorial.

Even some leading corporations that had previously supported "skepticism" were converted. Major oil companies like Shell, Texaco, and British Petroleum, as well as automobile manufacturers like Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler, abandoned the Global Climate Coalition, which itself became inactive after 2002.

Yet some forces of denial - most notably ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute, of which ExxonMobil is a leading member - remained recalcitrant. In 1998, the New York Times exposed an API memo outlining a strategy to invest millions to "maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences". The document stated: "Victory will be achieved when ... recognition of uncertainty becomes part of the 'conventional wisdom'". It's hard to resist a comparison with a famous Brown and Williamson tobacco company memo from the late 1960s, which observed: "Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

Though ExxonMobil's Lauren Kerr says she doesn't know the "status of this reported plan" and an API spokesman says he could "find no evidence" that it was ever implemented, many of the players involved have continued to dispute mainstream climate science with funding from ExxonMobil. According to the memo, Jeffrey Salmon, then executive director of the George C Marshall Institute, helped develop the plan, as did Steven Milloy, now a columnist. Other participants included David Rothbard of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow ($252,000) and the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Myron Ebell, then with Frontiers of Freedom ($612,000). Ebell says the plan was never implemented because "the envisioned funding never got close to being realized".

Another contributor was ExxonMobil lobbyist Randy Randol, who recently retired but who seems to have plied his trade effectively during George W Bush's first term. Less than a month after Bush took office, Randol sent a memo to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The memo denounced the then chairman of the IPCC, Robert Watson, a leading atmospheric scientist, as someone "handpicked by Al Gore" whose real objective was to "get media coverage for his views". (When the memo's existence was reported, ExxonMobil took the curious position that Randol did forward it to the CEQ, but neither he nor anyone else at the company wrote it.) "Can Watson be replaced now at the request of the US?" the memo asked. It went on to single out other Clinton administration climate experts, asking whether they had been "removed from their positions of influence".

It was, in short, an industry hit list of climate scientists attached to the US government. A year later the Bush administration blocked Watson's reelection to the post of IPCC chairman.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of ExxonMobil's support of the think tanks waging the disinformation campaign is that, given its close ties to the Bush administration (which cited "incomplete" science as justification to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol), it's hard to see why the company would even need such pseudo-scientific cover. In 1998, Dick Cheney, then CEO of Halliburton, signed a letter to the Clinton administration challenging its approach to Kyoto. Less than three weeks after Cheney assumed the vice presidency, he met with ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond for a half-hour. Officials of the corporation also met with Cheney's notorious energy task force.

ExxonMobil's connections to the current administration go much deeper, filtering down into lower but crucially important tiers of policymaking. For example, the memo forwarded by Randy Randol recommended that Harlan Watson, a Republican staffer with the House Committee on Science, help the United States' diplomatic efforts regarding climate change. Watson is now the State Department's "senior climate negotiator". Similarly, the Bush administration appointed former American Petroleum Institute attorney Philip Cooney - who headed the institute's "climate team" and opposed the Kyoto Protocol - as chief of staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. In June 2003 the New York Times reported that the CEQ had watered down an Environmental Protection Agency report's discussion of climate change, leading EPA scientists to charge that the document "no longer accurately represents scientific consensus".

Then there are the sisters Dobriansky. Larisa Dobriansky, currently the deputy assistant secretary for national energy policy at the Department of Energy - in which capacity she's charged with managing the department's Office of Climate Change Policy - was previously a lobbyist with the firm Akin Gump, where she worked on climate change for ExxonMobil. Her sister, Paula Dobriansky, currently serves as undersecretary for global affairs in the State Department. In that role, Paula Dobriansky recently headed the US delegation to a United Nations meeting on the Kyoto Protocol in Buenos Aires, where she charged that "science tells us that we cannot say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided".

Indeed, the rhetoric of scientific uncertainty has been Paula Dobriansky's stock-in-trade. At a November 2003 panel sponsored by the AEI, she declared, "the extent to which the man-made portion of greenhouse gases is causing temperatures to rise is still unknown, as are the long-term effects of this trend. Predicting what will happen 50 or 100 years in the future is difficult."

Given Paula Dobriansky's approach to climate change, it will come as little surprise that memos uncovered by Greenpeace show that in 2001, within months of being confirmed by the Senate, Dobriansky met with ExxonMobil lobbyist Randy Randol and the Global Climate Coalition. For her meeting with the latter group, one of Dobriansky's prepared talking points was "POTUS [President Bush in Secret Service parlance] rejected Kyoto, in part, based on input from you". The documents also show that Dobriansky met with ExxonMobil executives to discuss climate policy just days after September 11 2001. A State Department official confirmed that these meetings took place, but adds that Dobriansky "meets with pro-Kyoto groups as well".

Recently, Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at the University of California at San Diego, reviewed nearly a thousand scientific papers on global climate change published between 1993 and 2003, and was unable to find one that explicitly disagreed with the consensus view that humans are contributing to the phenomenon. As Oreskes hastens to add, that doesn't mean no such studies exist. But given the size of her sample, about ten percent of the papers published on the topic, she thinks it's safe to assume that the number is "vanishingly small".

What do the conservative think tanks do when faced with such an obstacle? For one, they tend to puff up debates far beyond their scientific significance. A case study is the "controversy" over the work of University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann. Drawing upon the work of several independent teams of scientists, including Mann and his colleagues, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2001 report asserted that "the increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years". This statement was followed by a graph, based on one of the Mann group's studies, showing relatively modest temperature variations over the past thousand years and a dramatic spike upward in the 20th century. Due to its appearance, this famous graph has been dubbed the "hockey stick".

During his talk at the AEI, Michael Crichton attacked the "hockey stick", calling it "sloppy work". He's hardly the first to have done so. A whole cottage industry has sprung up to criticize this analysis, much of it linked to ExxonMobil-funded think tanks. At a recent congressional briefing sponsored by the Marshall Institute, Senator Inhofe described Mann's work as the "primary scientific data" on which the IPCC's 2001 conclusions were based. That is simply incorrect. Mann points out that he's hardly the only scientist to produce a "hockey stick" graph - other teams of scientists have come up with similar reconstructions of past temperatures. And even if Mann's work and all of the other studies that served as the basis for the IPCC's statement on the temperature record are wrong, that would not in any way invalidate the conclusion that humans are currently causing rising temperatures. "There's a whole independent line of evidence, some of it very basic physics", explains Mann.

Nevertheless, the ideological allies of ExxonMobil virulently attack Mann's work, as if discrediting him would somehow put global warming concerns to rest. This idee fixe seems to have begun with Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Both have been "senior scientists" with the Marshall Institute. Soon serves as "science director" to, is an adjunct scholar with Frontiers of Freedom, and wrote (with Baliunas) the Fraser Institute's pamphlet "Global Warming: A Guide to the Science". Baliunas, meanwhile, is "enviro-sci host" of TechCentral, and is on science advisory boards of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and the Annapolis Center for Science-based Public Policy ($427,500 from ExxonMobil), and has given speeches on climate science before the AEI and the Heritage Foundation ($340,000). (Neither Soon nor Baliunas would provide comment for this article.)

In 2003, Soon and Baliunas published an article, partly funded by the American Petroleum Institute, in a small journal called Climate Research. Presenting a review of existing literature rather than new research, the two concluded "the 20th century is probably not the warmest nor a uniquely extreme climatic period of the last millennium". They had, in effect, challenged both Mann and the IPCC, and in so doing presented global warming skeptics with a cause to rally around. Another version of the paper was quickly published with three additional authors: David Legates of the University of Delaware, and longtime skeptics Craig and Sherwood Idso of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change in Tempe, Arizona. All have ExxonMobil connections: the Idsos received $40,000 from ExxonMobil for their center in the year the study was published, while Legates is an adjunct scholar at the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis (which got $205,000 between 2000 and 2003).

Calling the paper "a powerful new work of science" that would "shiver the timbers of the adrift Chicken Little crowd", Senator Inhofe devoted half of a Senate hearing to it, bringing in both Soon and Legates to testify against Mann. The day before, Hans Von Storch, the editor-in-chief of Climate Research - where the Soon and Baliunas paper originally appeared - resigned to protest deficiencies in the review process that led to its publication; two editors soon joined him. Von Storch later told the Chronicle of Higher Education that climate science skeptics "had identified Climate Research as a journal where some editors were not as rigorous in the review process as is otherwise common". Meanwhile, Mann and twelve other leading climate scientists wrote a blistering critique of Soon and Baliunas' paper in the American Geophysical Union publication Eos, noting, among other flaws, that they'd used historic precipitation records to reconstruct past temperatures - an approach Mann told Congress was "fundamentally unsound".

On February 16 2005, 140 nations celebrated the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. In the weeks prior, as the friends of ExxonMobil scrambled to inoculate the Bush administration from the bad press that would inevitably result from America's failure to sign this international agreement to curb global warming, a congressional briefing was organized. Held in a somber, wood-paneled Senate hearing room, the event could not help but have an air of authority. Like the Crichton talk, however, it was hardly objective. Sponsored by the George C Marshall Institute and the Cooler Heads Coalition, the briefing's panel of experts featured Myron Ebell, attorney Christopher Horner, and Marshall's CEO William O'Keefe, formerly an executive at the American Petroleum Institute and chairman of the Global Climate Coalition.

But it was the emcee, Senator Inhofe, who best represented the spirit of the event. Stating that Crichton's novel should be "required reading", the ruddy-faced senator asked for a show of hands to see who had finished it. He attacked the "hockey stick" graph and damned the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment for having "no footnotes or citations", as indeed the ACIA "overview" report - designed to be a "plain language synthesis" of the fully referenced scientific report - does not. But never mind, Inhofe had done his own research. He whipped out a 1974 issue of Time magazine and, in mocking tones, read from a thirty-year-old article that expressed concerns over cooler global temperatures.

In a folksy summation, Inhofe again called the notion that humans are causing global warming "a hoax", and said that those who believe otherwise are "hysterical people, they love hysteria. We're dealing with religion." Having thus dismissed some 2,000 scientists, their data sets and temperature records, and evidence of melting glaciers, shrinking islands, and vanishing habitats as so many hysterics, totems, and myths, Inhofe vowed to stick up for the truth, as he sees it, and "fight the battle out on the Senate floor".

Seated in the front row of the audience, former ExxonMobil lobbyist Randy Randol looked on approvingly.

Chris Mooney is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect, where he helped create the popular blog Tapped. His writing focuses on the intersection of science and politics, and his first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September.


<1> Put a Tiger In Your [Exxon-funded] Think Tank

<2> Black Gold? by Chris Mooney, MotherJones (May/June 2005 Issue)

Please also see:-

"Climate of Denial" by Bill McKibben, MotherJones (May/June 2005 Issue)

"Snowed: US news media has remained silent about global change"
by Ross Gelbspan, MotherJones (May/June 2005 Issue)

Bill Totten