Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Looking for Roong Thisdara

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (November 26 2008)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

There have been many times, during the two and a half years I've been writing posts for The Archdruid Report, when I've found myself staring at a blank computer screen of a Wednesday morning, wondering what on Earth I can say that my readers might find even remotely interesting. Happily, such times have been scarce this November. A passing reference, in my post two weeks ago, to my dissatisfaction with a presentation on the Transition Town movement brought a flurry of comments asking me to say more about that; I did so last week, and fielded another flurry of comments as well as some lively critiques on other blogs.

The core argument of last week's post centered on the possibility of building a better future by deliberate planning, and many of the comments and critiques took issue with my suggestion that this is not only impossible but counterproductive. While most of these latter noted that they were participants in the Transition Town movement, the ideas they expressed in that context are anything but unique to that movement; rather, it expresses a consensus that extends through most of the peak oil scene, and indeed, most of contemporary society. Despite its popularity, though, this confidence in our ability to plan the future seems woefully misplaced to me, and the reasons that have forced me to dissent from the consensus may be worth discussing here.

Trying to plan a way out of the crisis of industrial society is an old habit. Back in the 1970s, when the challenge posed by the limits to growth was first showing up on the radar screens of our collective discourse, a great deal of discussion centered on how global planning could back humanity away from the brink; since then, similar plans on various scales - local, regional, national, global - have appeared at regular intervals. The durable Lester Brown, to name only one of these would-be planners, released the original version of his Plan B in 2003; he's now on version 3.0, and further versions will no doubt be forthcoming in due time.

A double helping of irony surrounds all this flurry of planning. If the crisis we face could be met by making plans, we'd have little to worry about; the difficulty is that making plans is the easy part. Go digging in the archives of most American municipalities and you'll find an energy plan drafted and adopted, after extensive citizen input, in the 1970s, calling for exactly the changes that would have made matters today much less dire: conservation standards, public transit projects, zoning changes to reduce the need for cars, and so on. You'll have to brush a quarter inch of dust off the plan to read it, though, since nobody has looked at it since the Reagan years, and not one of its recommendations was still functioning when the housing boom began in the early 1990s. A certain skepticism toward another round of plans may thus be in order.

Yet there's a second dimension to the irony, because the recurrent gap between plan and implementation is not the only difficulty that has to be faced. The assumption common to all these plans is that it's possible to anticipate the process of transition to a deindustrial society in enough detail to make planning meaningful. I suggest that this assumption is badly in need of a hard second look.

There are two widely held beliefs these days about how we can deal with the end of the age of petroleum. The first claims that we simply need to find another energy source as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum, and run our society on that instead. The second claims that we simply need to replace those parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy with others that lack that dependence, and run our society with them instead. Most people in the peak oil scene, I think, have caught onto the problem with the first belief: there is no other energy source available to us that is as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum; the fact that we want one does not oblige the universe to provide us with one, and so we might as well plan to power our society by harnessing unicorns to treadmills.

The problem with the second belief is of the same order, but it's much less widely recognized. Toss aside the parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy, and there's nothing left. Nor are the components needed for a new low-energy society sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be used; we've got some things that worked tolerably well in simpler agrarian societies, and some promising new developments that have been tested on a very small scale and seem to work so far, but we have nothing like a complete kit. Thus we can't simply swap out a few parts and keep going; everything has to change, and we have no way of knowing in advance what changes will be required.

This last point is often missed. One of the people who commented on last week's post, a software designer by trade, pointed out that he starts work on a project by envisioning what the new software is going to do, and then figures out a way to do it; he argued that it makes just as much sense to do the same thing with human society. A software designer, though, knows the capabilities of the computers, operating systems, and computer languages his programs will use; he also knows how similar tasks have been done by other designers in the past. We don't have any of those advantages in trying to envision a sustainable future society.

Rather, we're in the position of a hapless engineer tasked in 1947 with drafting a plan to develop word processing software. At that time, nobody knew whether digital or analog computers were the wave of the future; the handful of experimental computer prototypes that existed then used relays, mechanical linkages, vacuum tubes, and other soon-to-be-outmoded technologies, while the devices that would actually make it possible to build computers that could handle word processing had not yet been invented, or even imagined. Under those conditions, the only plan that would have yielded any results would consist of a single sentence: "Invest heavily in basic research, and see what you can do with the results". Any other plan would have been wasted breath, and the more detailed the plan, the more useless it would have been.

The difficulty faced by our imaginary engineer is that meaningful planning can only take place when the basic outlines of the solution are already known. A different metaphor may help clarify how this works. Imagine that you suddenly wake up in a hotel room in Edinburgh. A mysterious woman tells you that you have been drugged and brought there secretly, it's now December 30, and you have to get a message to someone you will meet beneath the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square in London at midnight on New Year's Eve. If you succeed, Earth will be saved and you will get 100 million Euros. Since you know where you are, where you have to be, and how much time you have - the clock by the bed says 10 am - you can easily make plans and carry them out.

Now imagine the same scenario, except that the hotel room could be anywhere and you have no idea what day or time it is. Until you know where you are and how much time you have, planning is impossible. When the mysterious woman leaves, rather than heading for the door, the first thing you might logically do is to throw open the curtains. The results determine your next step. If you see the familiar skyline of Edinburgh, you can proceed at once to make and implement plans; if the vista before you is the clutter and bustle of an industrial town in Asia, you may need to learn more before planning becomes possible; if you see two moons setting in a pink sky above a cityscape of glittering domes, and the beings walking alongside the canal nearby have pointed ears and green skin, the one thing you know for certain is that the trip to Trafalgar Square is going to be interesting!

Now imagine the same scenario, except that the landscape outside has the pink sky, two moons, and alien promenaders, and the mysterious woman tells you that you have to get to the local equivalent of Trafalgar Square by the local equivalent of New Year's Eve. All hope of planning has just gone out the window. Your only option is to improvise as you go, try as many options as possible, collect tidbits of information, and attempt to piece together what you learn into a workable mental model. Nor will you have any way of knowing whether your model is right or wrong until you fling yourself out of an ornate airboat, sprint up to the giant bas-relief of Gresh the Omnivorous at Roong Thisdara right at the purple of the high red of twelfth Isbil past Eshrey of the rising calendar, and find the person you need to meet waiting there for you.

Conventional ideas of planning tend to assume situations like the first scenario I've just outlined, where the problem and the potential solutions are both clearly visible and the only issue is how to connect them. More innovative ideas of planning - and it's to the credit of the peak oil scene that these latter have been very well represented there - tend to assume situations like the second scenario, where investigation must precede planning, and then follow along the planning process to keep it on track, rather like a herdsman's dog trotting alongside a flock of sheep. As I see it, though, the situation we face at the end of the petroleum age most resembles the third scenario, where all we have to go on is a relatively vague idea of what a solution might be like, success or failure can be known only in retrospect, and improvisation is the order of the day.

The core fact of the matter, after all, is that what we are trying to invent here - a society that can support some approximation of modern technology on a sustainable basis - has never existed on Earth. We have no working models to go by; all we have, again, is a mix of agrarian practices that seem to have been sustainable, on the one hand, and some experiments that seem to be working so far on a very small scale, on the other. Our job is to piece something together using these, and other things that don't exist yet, to cope with future challenges we can only foresee in the most general terms. That leaves us, in terms of the metaphor, looking for Roong Thisdara when the only thing we know about it is that it's roughly equivalent to Trafalgar Square.

Now of course it's quite possible to imagine post-industrial communities and societies in a fair amount of detail, and several imagined futures of this sort have found enthusiastic followings. The fact that something can be imagined, though, does nothing to prove that it will work. It's not too hard to envisage a perpetual motion machine, say, or an investment that keeps on gaining value forever, and as we've seen, it's quite possible to build a substantial social movement around belief in the latter, only to find out the hard way that attractive visions and passionate beliefs can rest on foundations of empty air. I recognize that many people find belief in such visions a powerful source of hope in a difficult time, and I sympathize with their feelings, but if we allow the desire for emotional comfort to trump the need to face unwelcome realities, we are in very deep trouble indeed.

There is actually a third irony to all this. As mentioned above, the last round of energy crises in the 1970s saw a great deal of energy go into making plans. A great deal of energy also went into improvisation, in a wide range of fields - notably alternative agriculture, renewable energy, and home design and construction. The plans have been forgotten; I don't know of a single one that was still in force a decade down the road. The improvisations, on the other hand, have not; they include today's organic intensive gardening, permaculture, most of today's arsenal of solar energy methods, a range of alternative homebuilding methods, and much more.

Nobody drew up plans to develop these things, after all; the developers simply developed them, working things out as circumstances demanded, and shared what they learned with others as they went. Thus nearly all the ingredients being inserted into the current crop of plans for the deindustrial future were themselves the product of improvisation. It might be worth suggesting on this basis that our best option would be to skip the plans altogether and get to work on more improvisations.

All the points made here can be phrased in another way: a society is more like an organism than an artifact, and while artifacts can be planned and manufactured, organisms must evolve. This last point, though, presupposes an understanding of the difference between evolution and the ideologies that have sometimes been dressed up in evolution's cast-off clothing - an issue that will be central to next week's post.


John Michael Greer has been active in the alternative spirituality movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of a dozen books, including The Druidry Handbook (2006) and The Long Descent (2008). He lives in Ashland, Oregon.

Bill Totten

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Technology Traps

by Peter Crabb (November 09 2008)

"As a consequence of the ascendancy of technology, humans have become demeaned and powerless - second-class citizens in their own societies".

In public debates about the issues of our time - climate change, peak oil, economic collapse, and militarism - there is an elephant in the room that no one seems to want to acknowledge. Perhaps that is because the elephant is not an elephant at all. It's the disastrous technological way of life humans have been pursuing since at least the dawn of agriculture 13,000 years ago.

We won't hear it from the mainstream media, but the technologies we have come to depend on are actively distorting our sense of reality and are rapidly rendering the planet unlivable. Contrary to the portrayal of HAL, the murderous computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the situation is much more subtle and insidious than evil machines running amok. What is happening is that every day we humans freely choose to use technological devices that make us feel good when in fact these devices are not good for us or the planet at all.

In our blind pursuit of immediate gratifications from our countless gadgets, we have run headlong into a number of "technology traps" that are destroying human potential and the prospects for sustainable cultures.

* Children are put under the spell of technology shortly after birth. They are taught that sitting in front of screens for hours on end is legitimate human activity. No value is assigned to exercising the body or going outside and immersing oneself in the natural world. The comfort of tv, video games, computers, and cell phones shields kids from any contact with the real world of wind and sun and plants and animals. Most kids who have grown up in this world of technological distraction probably wouldn't know a bird from a bee, let alone that humans share an essential interest with other life-forms in preserving the planetary ecosystem. They certainly have no reason to care about the planet if the most rewarding thing in their lives has always been to turn on a screen and slip into a trance.

* Daily use of technologies that focus attention on "me" and "my feelings" and "my needs" continues into adulthood and distorts the development of personality. Cell phones, text messaging, and iPods conspire to infantilize adults. Those technologies of comfort are no different from the baby's cherished blanket, bottle, or thumb. "MySpace" is an ironic icon of our time because, while the focus appears to be on "me", the reality is that it isn't my space at all, but rather a corporate trap that saps people's time and cognitive energies. With the emphasis on "me", it seems unlikely that people will be of a mind to take effective action to solve problems out there in the real world that threaten their own well-being.

* Given all of that daily technological activity, how useful are the skills people must learn to operate those gadgets? What passes for competence has been degraded to the most superficial recipe knowledge about pushing buttons in the right sequence on devices contrived by engineers in corporate R&D labs. Education and business have uncritically adopted the model of the student, the worker, and the consumer as button-pushing drones. Witness the impact of the microwave oven on Americans' ideas about what is acceptable food and how food should be prepared. People no longer own authentic, useful skills, and they do not even understand how the technologies they depend on work. How will they fare when the electricity goes out?

• With the help of human enthusiasts and enablers, technology creates its own self-affirming ideology. It is widely believed that technology is infallible. Technology must not be questioned or criticized. Human needs are subordinate to the needs of devices and systems. If something goes wrong, it must be due to "human error". The solution to technology-induced problems is always more and better technology. In fact, every arena of human activity is always improved when the latest, most complex technologies are applied. As a consequence of the ascendancy of technology, humans have become demeaned and powerless - second-class citizens in their own societies.

In the natural world, Darwinian natural selection would weed out tendencies for an organism to be destructive of itself and its habitat. But the technological way of life has uncoupled human behavior from natural selection pressures. The harms that result when we use destructive technologies are dispersed in space and time and are difficult to detect. The air pollution and petroleum depletion caused by driving a car don't immediately feed back to the driver and make her question her use of her car, just as a drink from a plastic bottle of spring water flown in daily from the South Pacific gives no clues about the many harms caused by the bottled water industry. Our present-focused brains just don't get the harmful consequences of our technological activities.

There is no easy way out of these kinds of traps. Even when people recognize that technology can be problematic, most do not have the luxury of just saying "no". Some people do without tv or cars or cell phones or the Internet, but the impact of a few conscientious objectors is probably negligible. What is needed is a wholesale ratcheting-down of culture to small, low-tech communities that live harmoniously and respectfully in local ecosystems. Unless the human species can find the courage and wisdom to reshape the ways we harness finite resources to solve the basic problems of survival, we will continue down the road to certain disaster.


Peter Crabb is Associate Professor of Psychology at Pennsylvania State University-Hazleton. He is a social psychologist whose research looks at the impact of technologies on social behavior and personality. He lives a low-tech, low-impact way of life in rural eastern Pennsylvania.

Further reading:

Ellul, Jacques (1990). The Technological Bluff. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.

Kipnis, David (1990). Technology and Power. New York, New York: Springer-Verlag.

"Fall of the technological world", by Jan Lundberg, Culture Change Letter #204, October 07 2008:

Bill Totten

Friday, November 28, 2008

Law professor fires back at song-swapping lawsuits (November 16 2008)

BOSTON - The music industry's courtroom campaign against people who share songs online is coming under counterattack.

A Harvard Law School professor has launched a constitutional assault against a federal copyright law at the heart of the industry's aggressive strategy, which has wrung payments from thousands of song-swappers since 2003.

The professor, Charles Nesson, has come to the defense of a Boston University graduate student targeted in one of the music industry's lawsuits. By taking on the case, Nesson hopes to challenge the basis for the suit, and all others like it.

Nesson argues that the Digital Theft Deterrence and Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999 is unconstitutional because it effectively lets a private group - the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA - carry out civil enforcement of a criminal law. He also says the music industry group abused the legal process by brandishing the prospects of lengthy and costly lawsuits in an effort to intimidate people into settling cases out of court.

Nesson, the founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said in an interview that his goal is to "turn the courts away from allowing themselves to be used like a low-grade collection agency".

Nesson is best known for defending the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers and for consulting on the case against chemical companies that was depicted in the film A Civil Action. His challenge against the music labels, made in US District Court in Boston, is one of the most determined attempts to derail the industry's flurry of litigation.

The initiative has generated more than 30,000 complaints against people accused of sharing songs online. Only one case has gone to trial; nearly everyone else settled out of court to avoid damages and limit the attorney fees and legal costs that escalate over time.

Nesson intervened after a federal judge in Boston asked his office to represent Joel Tenenbaum, who was among dozens of people who appeared in court in RIAA cases without legal help.

The 24-year-old Tenenbaum is a graduate student accused by the RIAA of downloading at least seven songs and making 816 music files available for distribution on the Kazaa file-sharing network in 2004. He offered to settle the case for $500, but music companies rejected that, demanding $12,000.

The Digital Theft Deterrence Act, the law at issue in the case, sets damages of $750 to $30,000 for each infringement, and as much as $150,000 for a willful violation. That means Tenenbaum could be forced to pay $1 million if it is determined that his alleged actions were willful.

The music industry group isn't conceding any ground to Nesson and Tenenbaum. The RIAA has said in court documents that its efforts to enforce the copyright law is protected under the First Amendment right to petition the courts for redress of grievances. Tenenbaum also failed, the music group noted, to notify the US Attorney General that he wanted to contest the law's constitutional status.

Cara Duckworth, a spokeswoman for the RIAA, said her group's pursuit of people suspected of music piracy is a fair response to the industry's multibillion-dollar losses since peer-to-peer networks began making it easy for people to share massive numbers of songs online.

"What should be clear is that illegally downloading and distributing music comes with many risks and is not an anonymous activity", Duckworth said.

Still, wider questions persist on whether the underlying copyright law is constitutional, said Ray Beckerman, a Forest Hills, New York-based attorney who has represented other downloading defendants and runs a blog tracking the most prominent cases.

One federal judge has held that the constitutional question is "a serious argument", Beckerman said. "There are two law review articles that have said that it is unconstitutional, and there are three cases that said that it might be unconstitutional".

In September, a federal judge granted a new trial to a Minnesota woman who had been ordered to pay $220,000 for pirating 24 songs. In that ruling, US District Judge Michael J Davis called on Congress to change copyright laws to prevent excessive awards in similar cases. He wrote that he didn't discount the industry's claim that illegal downloading has hurt the recording business, but called the award "wholly disproportionate" to the industry's losses.

In the Boston case, Nesson is due to meet attorneys for the music industry for a pretrial conference on Tuesday, ahead of a trial set for December 1.

Entertainment attorney Jay Cooper, who specializes in music and copyright issues at Los Angeles-based Greenberg Traurig, is convinced that Nesson will not persuade the federal court to strike down the copyright law. He said the statutory damages it awards enable recording companies to get compensation in cases where it is difficult to prove actual damages.

The record companies have echoed that line of defense. In court filings in Tenenbaum's case, they contend that the damages allowed by the law are "intended not only to compensate the copyright owner, but also to punish the infringer (and) deter other potential infringers".

But are these lawsuits the only way the record industry could deter piracy? Nesson believes the industry could develop new ways to prevent copyright material from being shared illegally. One idea would be to bundle music with ads and post it for free online, he says.

"There are alternative ways", he said, "of packaging entertainment to return revenue to artists".


On the Net:

Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society:

Ray Beckerman's blog:

The Recording Industry Association of America on music piracy:

Bill Totten

A New Deal or a War Footing?

Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change

by Sharon Astyk (November 11 2008)

In a sense, could anything be more heartening? Al Gore, playing up rumors he'll have a powerful role in the Obama administration, and writing his dream list up for the New York Times {1}, amid a growing Democratic consensus that what is needed is an environmental New Deal to deal with the climate crisis, volatile energy prices and most of all, the economy. I mean yes, we're still throwing money at a problem that defies money hurling, but instead of subsidizing Wall Street bonuses, hey, at least we're doing something good for the people and the planet, right?

Well, let's slow down a little bit. Al Gore in many ways has a great laundry list, and I'm going to consider it as an example of what an ambitious ecological New Deal might look like. Here's the list - and I think what's not on it is as important as what's on it:

First, the new president and the new Congress should offer large-scale investment in incentives for the construction of concentrated solar thermal plants in the Southwestern deserts, wind farms in the corridor stretching from Texas to the Dakotas and advanced plants in geothermal hot spots that could produce large amounts of electricity.

Second, we should begin the planning and construction of a unified national smart grid for the transport of renewable electricity from the rural places where it is mostly generated to the cities where it is mostly used. New high-voltage, low-loss underground lines can be designed with "smart" features that provide consumers with sophisticated information and easy-to-use tools for conserving electricity, eliminating inefficiency and reducing their energy bills. The cost of this modern grid - $400 billion over ten years - pales in comparison with the annual loss to American business of $120 billion due to the cascading failures that are endemic to our current balkanized and antiquated electricity lines.

Third, we should help America's automobile industry (not only the Big Three but the innovative new startup companies as well) to convert quickly to plug-in hybrids that can run on the renewable electricity that will be available as the rest of this plan matures. In combination with the unified grid, a nationwide fleet of plug-in hybrids would also help to solve the problem of electricity storage. Think about it: with this sort of grid, cars could be charged during off-peak energy-use hours; during peak hours, when fewer cars are on the road, they could contribute their electricity back into the national grid.

Fourth, we should embark on a nationwide effort to retrofit buildings with better insulation and energy-efficient windows and lighting. Approximately forty percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States come from buildings - and stopping that pollution saves money for homeowners and businesses. This initiative should be coupled with the proposal in Congress to help Americans who are burdened by mortgages that exceed the value of their homes.

Fifth, the United States should lead the way by putting a price on carbon here at home, and by leading the world's efforts to replace the Kyoto treaty next year in Copenhagen with a more effective treaty that caps global carbon dioxide emissions and encourages nations to invest together in efficient ways to reduce global warming pollution quickly, including by sharply reducing deforestation.

Quick - what's not on this list? I bet you noticed, too - there's no mention of consumption, either as an economic issue or at the personal level. Rather like coming out of "An Inconvenient Truth" we're left with the message that there's nothing for us to do other than lobby our fearless leaders.

What's wrong with that? Addressing climate change manifestly requires policy solutions - but again we see ourselves trapped in the false dichotomy I discuss in Depletion and Abundance (2008) between public and private. There is no question in the world that consumption is a policy issue - seventy percent of our economy depends on consumer spending and personal consumption. Yet again we are being told that "personal action" is something you do in the dark that makes no difference, while the really important stuff happens at the government tables.

In fact, in reality, we know differently. At US government tables we've seen exactly zero major policy shifts so far - yes, we had the worst president imaginable, but that doesn't change the fact that under Clinton, when Gore was vice-president, we saw the same zippo. At the same time, as consumers have slowed their spending, we've seen projections of world oil use fall dramatically - for the first time in decades, we are expecting an actual contraction in the use of oil. Earlier this year, actual driving miles fell dramatically - as much as six percent year over year. Now these things were in reaction to high prices - but they were consumption decisions made by private households that in the aggregate made more real difference in the impact of our emissions than all the treaties we've violated or refused to sign.

The assumption, of course, is that we make changes for economic reasons, but that we'd never make them for ecological reasons. My answer to that is simply this - no one has tried asking Americans to make major shifts in their lifestyle for the good of their country and their ecology in thirty years. We assume we know that this would never succeed - in practice, we don't have the slightest idea what would happen.

Consumption is not simply accidentally left off the table by people who underestimate its power or prefer only to focus on legislation, it is left off because thinking about consumption undermines some of the presumptions of wholly technical and policy solutions. In fact, if we addressed consumption, we might have to change our basic assumptions about what we can accomplish.

Think about Gore's list above in relation to consumption. The first thing, of course, that jumps out at you is the claim we have to bail out the car companies, even though, as Deutsche Bank announced, GM is worth nothing - its stock is worth absolutely nothing {2}. Think about that one for a second, and consider what has to underly our presumptions that we should bail out a car company - underlying it is the assumption that we will all be buying cars again fairly soon - shiny new electric ones.

That is, underlying the assumptions of a Gore-style New Deal is the idea that we can do temporary bail outs because our consumption is going to go back up - only this time we'll be consuming green products, including our electric cars. There are several problems with this - the obvious one being that it isn't clear what will fund our ability to buy these new cars in the coming years. The assumption is that the new green jobs will do so - and perhaps that's true, but there's a "turtles all the way down" quality to this analysis - the new deal will give us the ability to make these shifts, and the money will then only be spent for good (despite the fact that historically, the more we spend, the more we consume) ... I'm not convinced anyone knows how that might happen.

The less obvious problem is this - investment and purchase of all these things includes an enormous front-load of fossil fuels. And as far as I know, no one knows whether a comprehensive investment in these resources might not actually push us over the edge of a climate tipping point.

In order to understand this, I think we have to divide the kinds of changes we make into two categories - the first are those that require a large initial investment, usually of both money and fossil energies, and that provide a later payback of those investments. Think of it as the mortgage-model of addressing fossil fuel usage - the bank pays a lot of money upfront to the house seller, and then you gradually pay back the investment over time. We assume that the investment is a good one if, in the long term, we get more out of it than we put in.

But consider this in the context of Al Gore's proposal, and James Hansen's observation that we have less than a decade to make significant inroads into addressing global warming. What Gore is proposing is a massive investment of fossil fuels - these are used at every stage of the manufacture of wind turbines, concentrated solar thermal plants and geothermal plants. Most insulations are made from fossil fuels, with fossil fuels. Cars use tons of fossil fuels in manufacturing at every stage from mining of metals to welding of materials.

In the very long term, we can imagine having enough fossil energy to use wind to weld the cars and run the mining equipment - but we're a very, very long way from that kind of payback - at this point, we'll be using enormous quantities of fossil fuels across the board to piggyback us to renewable energies. And we'll be using them to meet all of our other needs in the meantime. The assumption is that it is a good idea to have one long, last party, if that gets us to lower energy usage in the first place - but the question is, does it get us to the lowest total energy usage we could get to? Or are there are other approaches that have less risk of long term harm, and that ultimately reduce our fossil fuel usage further - such as getting out of private cars altogether and focusing heavily on energy consumption.

What scale is the risk of the Gore approach? It is probably wrong to use the term "New Deal" here at all - the New Deal, for the most part, and with the exception of some dam building and a few other projects, was a comparatively low input project. That is, facing massive unemployment, the New Deal concentrated on the use of abundant human energies - they put people to work doing things that didn't require large scale technical build outs - in the Civilian Conservation Corps building trails and draining swamps, largely by hand, in social programs and at picking crops. The investments were large by the standards of the day, but mostly the goal was to pay people a living wage.

The kind of project Al Gore is describing has much less to do with the New Deal, and much more to do with putting the nation on a war footing - that is, what we're really talking about is a build-out on the scale of World War Two. The idea of getting 100% renewable electric in ten years is probably not possible, but if it is, it will be done, as Bohr put it, by turning the nation into a factory.

And a particular kind of factory - Gore is proposing that most of our energy resources be located in the dry, rural and desert west, in mountain and flat areas that haven't historically supported large populations. That is, he's proposing that we build energy boomtowns - which means that not only are we imagining frontloading an enormous quantity of fossil fuels into the cars and insulation and generating plants themselves, but into the places that we are building and installling them. Now we'll be adding roads, and schools for kids, as well as huge concrete and metal facilities. Now we'll be moving our population into an area that manifestly cannot support a huge industrial population sustainably - ie, we are talking about moving the population temporarily into these boom areas, straining their water resources, providing industrial jobs but probably destroying a lot of farming and agricultural jobs that had relied upon ranching water systems. And then we're going to move them again - because they won't be able to stay there. There are reasons that the southwest deserts are already struggling with their present growth.

And most of these projects will take many years to complete - let's say that Gore is right, and we can do it in a decade, that there won't be the cost overruns and deadline failures that are usually inevitable, and that it is possible to shift our generating capacity that quickly (both of which are unlikely), and that we can borrow the money and pay it back later, and our kids won't mind (unbelievably unlikely). And, let's assume that this is enough to bring the economy out of a depression. Even if all these things are true, we will also have just burned an unbelievable quantity of fossil fuels in a massive build out. Many of the projects, including the asphalt for roads and the concrete needed for the building of power plants will have been tremendously fossil fuel intensive. We will have spent an enormous amount of money, much of it transferred to other nations whose manufacturing capacity we have relied on and who produce the fossil fuels needed.

At an absolute minimum, in order to do this without pushing the world over into a tipping point, we'll have had to radically regulate everyone else's other carbon usage. More likely, we'll find we can't do that - because we need consumption in order to keep the economy going enough to keep this build out funded. Remember, World War Two was funded with a combination of loans from countries who had no choice but to lend to us, and investment by ordinary Americans who paid what was essentially a voluntary additional tax in the form of War Bonds (yes, eventually they paid off, but there was no certainty that they would, particularly if the US lost the war). It is not impossible to imagine Americans in a recession giving the government a big chunk of their change to use for a while, but rather harder than to imagine discussing consumption radically.

Any response to climate change is going to have to take seriously the costs of that response - the costs in terms of long term economic security, and the environmental costs. It may well be that we are close enough to our tipping point that we can't afford a decade of massive, intensive industrialization that raises our use of fossil fuels, even for a big payoff on the other side.

And the payoff is the real question - Keynesian investment presumes a later boom. What will the next boom be, after we've done our environmental retrofit. The assumption is that we'll be leaner, better, doing more with fewer resources. But we've never done that before - what we've seen many times over the years is Jevons' paradox - that as we refine our energy usage in one sense, we expand it in another. Thomas Princen, author of The Logic of Sufficiency (2005) does a remarkable analysis of the problem of an efficiency focus, and comes to the conclusion that simple streamlining doesn't have the power to resolve our ecological dilemma - it can't, in the end, lead us to what we need.

What do we need? Well, there are strategies for dealing with climate change that don't require a massive investment of fossil energies. They are, of course, unsexy in a legislative sense, mostly because they are enacted by ordinary people, and focus heavily on conservation. On the other hand, as we have seen with the shifts people are making for economic reasons, they provide immediate, dramatic paybacks, with fewer dangers. It is obviously not possible to reduce our energy usage to zero - we will still need investment in renewable infrastructure, in insulation, and we will still need companies, perhaps car companies, to build rail cars and windmills. But the difference between a gradual build out, that takes into account the ecological and economic costs of this shift, and takes the New Deal, rather than the war as a real model - ie, it emphasizes what ordinary people can do with human energies and small-to-moderate investments and a massive build-out that attempt to keep business as usual.

A New Deal model of ecological adaptation would consider what we could do with the least possible increase in long-term indebtedness. It would ask our population to make short term, radical sacrifices in order to ensure a better world for their children and grandchildren, to make real the words "for ourselves and our posterity" enshrined in the Constitution. Instead of building out all at once, we'd prioritize our cutbacks, dropping our energy consumption both radically and rapidly - fifty percent in five years is probably feasible. Meanwhile, our investments in renewable energy *and* in people would enable not just short term jobs in boomtowns, but a long term renewable economy - shifting our focus to food, health care, education. Instead of tax incentives that apply mostly to those rich enough to pay substantial taxes, we'd focus on low input, often human powered improvements to our lives - putting people to work building basic storm windows and helping people retrofit their homes.

In order to do this, we would need to address the size of the economy, and the growth paradigm. And if we do that, we can't leave future generations large debts - period. The reason for that is that instead of a boom-bust cycle, we will have a smaller economy, one that probably won't produce enough money to pay lots and lots of interest, as well as meeting needs. The good news is that stable smaller economies are possible - instead of removing large chunks of the population from the workfoce into hellacious unemployment, we could encourage voluntary departure for people willing to do the ordinary work of reducing energy usage - homeschooling their kids and keeping them off the buses, growing food, tending the elderly and disabled in their homes and communities, rather than shipping them to nursing homes, cooking meals instead of driving to restaurants, mending and fixing things instead of throwing them out. Reducing our consumption is likely to be impossible as long as we insist that we need everyone in the workforce, serving the larger public economy and commuting to their jobs while stopping at McDonalds on the way home.

The thing is, the odds are that in a world of energy decline, we're facing a smaller economy anyway. But we have a choice of how we face it - we can manage its decline (and my next post will explore how we might manage its decline) and we can manage our roles in it. We can acknowledge that it seems impossible to have a sustainable economy and endless pressure for growth - and that it is morally unjust to force future generations into a boom and bust cycle to pay off the debts of their parents. We can restrain ourselves, emphasize radical shifts in consumption, while also gradually and carefully using our remaining energy resources to build out renewables that can bootstrap us to a sustainable economy - and a sustainable culture.

Or we can do what we're doing - borrow like there's no tomorrow, ignore the reality that tomorrow does always come, and ignore the vast elephant taking up all the space and air in our room, instead of talking about consumption.





Bill Totten

Thursday, November 27, 2008

One Shot Left

The latest science suggests that preventing runaway climate change means total decarbonisation.

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (November 25 2008)

George Bush is behaving like a furious defaulter whose home is about to be repossessed. Smashing the porcelain, ripping the doors off their hinges, he is determined that there will be nothing worth owning by the time the bastards kick him out. His midnight regulations, opening America's wilderness to logging and mining, trashing pollution controls, tearing up conservation laws, will do almost as much damage in the last sixty days of his presidency as he achieved in the foregoing 3000 {1}.

His backers - among them the nastiest pollutocrats in America - are calling in their favours. But this last binge of vandalism is also the Bush presidency reduced to its essentials. Destruction is not an accidental product of its ideology. Destruction is the ideology. Neoconservatism is power expressed by showing that you can reduce any part of the world to rubble.

If it is now too late to prevent runaway climate change, the Bush team must carry much of the blame. His wilful trashing of the Middle Climate - the interlude of benign temperatures which allowed human civilisation to flourish - makes the mass murder he engineered in Iraq only the second of his crimes against humanity. Bush has waged his war on science with the same obtuse determination with which he has waged his war on terror.

Is it too late? To say so is to make it true. To suggest that there is nothing that can now be done is to ensure that nothing is done. But even a resolute optimist like me finds hope ever harder to summon. A new summary of the science published since last year's Intergovernmental Panel report suggests that - almost a century ahead of schedule - the critical climate processes might have begun {2}.

Just a year ago the Intergovernmental Panel warned that the Arctic's "late-summer sea ice is projected to disappear almost completely towards the end of the 21st century ... in some models" {3}. But, as the new report by the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) shows, climate scientists are now predicting the end of late-summer sea ice within three to seven years. The trajectory of current melting plummets through the graphs like a meteorite falling to earth.

Forget the sodding polar bears: this is about all of us. As the ice disappears, the region becomes darker, which means that it absorbs more heat. A recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the extra warming caused by disappearing sea ice penetrates 1500 kilometres inland, covering almost the entire region of continuous permafrost {4}. Arctic permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the entire global atmosphere {5}. It remains safe for as long as the ground stays frozen. But the melting has begun. Methane gushers are now gassing out of some places with such force that they keep the water open in Arctic lakes, through the winter {6}.

The effects of melting permafrost are not incorporated into any global climate models. Runaway warming in the Arctic alone could flip the entire planet into a new climatic state. The Middle Climate could collapse faster and sooner than the grimmest forecasts proposed.

Barack Obama's speech to the US climate summit last week was an astonishing development {7}. It shows that, in this respect at least, there really is a prospect of profound political change in America. But while he described a workable plan for dealing with the problem perceived by the Earth Summit of 1992, the measures he proposes are now hopelessly out of date. The science has moved on. The events the Earth Summit and the Kyoto process were supposed to have prevented are already beginning. Thanks to the wrecking tactics of Bush the elder, Clinton (and Gore) and Bush the younger, steady, sensible programmes of the kind that Obama proposes are now irrelevant. As the PIRC report suggests, the years of sabotage and procrastination have left us with only one remaining shot: a crash programme of total energy replacement.

A paper by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research shows that if we are to give ourselves a roughly even chance {8, 9} of preventing more than two degrees of warming, global emissions from energy must peak by 2015 and decline by between six and eight per cent per year from 2020 to 2040, leading to a complete decarbonisation of the global economy soon after 2050 {10}. Even this programme would work only if some optimistic assumptions about the response of the biosphere hold true. Delivering a high chance of preventing two degrees of warming would mean cutting global emissions by over eight per cent a year.

Is this possible? Is this acceptable? The Tyndall paper points out that annual emission reductions greater than one per cent have "been associated only with economic recession or upheaval". When the Soviet Union collapsed, they fell by some five per cent a year. But you can answer these questions only by considering the alternatives. The trajectory both Barack Obama and Gordon Brown have proposed - an eighty per cent cut by 2050 - means reducing emissions by an average of two per cent a year. This programme, the figures in the Tyndall paper suggest, is likely to commit the world to at least four or five degrees of warming {11}, which means the likely collapse of human civilisation across much of the planet. Is this acceptable?

The costs of a total energy replacement and conservation plan would be astronomical, the speed improbable. But the governments of the rich nations have already deployed a scheme like this for another purpose. A survey by the broadcasting network CNBC suggests that the US federal government has now spent $4.2 trillion in response to the financial crisis, more than the total spending on World War Two when adjusted for inflation {12}. Do we want to be remembered as the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse?

This approach is challenged by the American thinker Sharon Astyk. In an interesting new essay, she points out that replacing the world's energy infrastructure involves "an enormous front-load of fossil fuels", which are required to manufacture wind turbines, electric cars, new grid connections, insulation and all the rest {13}. This could push us past the climate tipping point. Instead, she proposes, we must ask people "to make short term, radical sacrifices", cutting our energy consumption by fifty per cent, with little technological assistance, in five years. There are two problems: the first is that all previous attempts show that relying on voluntary abstinence does not work. The second is that a ten per cent annual cut in energy consumption while the infrastructure remains mostly unchanged means a ten per cent annual cut in total consumption: a deeper depression than the modern world has ever experienced. No political system - even an absolute monarchy - could survive an economic collapse on this scale.

She is right about the risks of a technological green new deal, but these are risks we have to take. Astyk's proposals travel far into the realm of wishful thinking. Even the technological solution I favour inhabits the distant margins of possibility.

Can we do it? Search me. Reviewing the new evidence, I have to admit that we might have left it too late. But there is another question I can answer more easily. Can we afford not to try? No we can't.


1. Suzanne Goldenberg, 20th November 2008. President for 60 more days, Bush tearing apart protection for America's wilderness. The Guardian.

2. Public Interest Research Centre, 25th November 2008. Climate Safety.

3. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I. Technical Summary, page 73.

4. David M Lawrence et al, 2008. Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation during rapid sea ice loss. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol 35, 11506. doi:10.1029/2008GL033985.

5. Edward A G Schuur et al, September 2008. Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: implications for the global carbon cycle. Bioscience, Vol 58, No. 8, pages 701-714. doi:10.1641/B580807

6. United Nations Environment Project, 4 June 2007. Melting Ice - a Hot Topic? Press Release.


8. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, 2008. Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. Published online. doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0138

Anderson and Bows state that "The framing of climate change policy is typically informed by the two degrees Celsius threshold; however, even stabilizing at 450 ppmv CO2e [parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent] offers only a 46 per cent chance of not exceeding two degrees Celsius". This estimate is given in the following paper:

9. Malte Meinshausen, 2006. What Does a Two Degrees Celsius Target Mean for Greenhouse Gas Concentrations? A Brief Analysis Based on Multi-Gas Emission Pathways and Several Climate Sensitivity Uncertainty Estimates. In Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (Ed in Chief). Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.

10. This is for stabilisation at 450 ppmv CO2e - well above the level that James Hansen and other climate scientists are now calling for.

11. Anderson and Bows note that stabilising atmospheric concentrations even at 650 ppmv CO2e requires that global emissions peak by 2020, followed by global cuts of three to four per cent a year. This means that OECD nations will have to cut emissions by even more than this to prevent concentrations from rising above 650. Meinshausen estimates that stabilisation at 650ppmv CO2e gives a forty per cent chance of exceeding four degrees Celsius.

12., 17th November 2008. Financial Crisis Tab Already In The Trillions.

13. Sharon Astyk, 11th November 2008. A New Deal or a War Footing? Thinking Through Our Response to Climate Change.

Copyright (c) 2006

Bill Totten

Free Trade And Distorted Development:

A Critique Of WTO Perspectives

by Sharat G Lin (November 12 2008)

"Evidence is persuasive that trade openness delivers efficiencies and generates wealth. If trade opening takes place under the right conditions, all countries can benefit from international exchange." This was the assessment of the Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Pascal Lamy, speaking at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and the Stanford Center for International Development (SCID) on 27 October 2008.

He said that the multilateral system that came into being with the WTO "has brought transparency and predictability to international trade".

"All of the models suggest that the gains to developing countries will be larger the more they open their markets to trade". Citing specific cases, he said, "since opening their economies, Asian giants like China and India have together lifted more than 440 million people out of poverty, an economic success which, I think, we all can agree is without any precedent".

While trade has been an engine of aggregate economic growth in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and similar emerging countries, Lamy did not consider the unmitigated displacement of traditional sectors in these economies and the uneven development that has led to an alarming rise in income inequality both socially and geographically within each country.

With the 153 members of the WTO at all levels of development, and thirty more queuing for membership, Lamy acknowledged that the WTO framework is "no one size fits all paradigm". He continued, "We acknowledge that the poorest are simply not equipped to take on the obligations of the rich".

Lamy argued that a thirty-fold growth in international trade in real terms over the past sixty years was made possible by progressive reductions in tariffs. "In 1947-48 before the GATT negotiations, average tariffs in the industrial world were around twenty to thirty per cent and trade was constrained by a myriad of quantitative restrictions. Eight successive rounds of negotiations succeeded in reducing average MFN tariffs on the imports of manufacturers to the four per cent today in industrial countries."

The WTO has faced scathing criticism for the free trade policies that have accelerated globalization and the integration of a worldwide capitalist free market economy. But Lamy did make an important distinction: "trade opening is not synonymous with deregulation". The tariff reductions negotiated under the WTO framework involve complex rules and formulas that are transparent to all parties. The problem is not one of deregulation or opacity, but that the industrially developed countries have, until recently, dominated the negotiations because of the differential rules and preferential subsidies that they have long had in place, and owing to their post-colonial political weight. Fortunately, that is changing. Recent trade negotiating rounds have conceded important preferences and exemptions for poor countries.

What free trade has done, however, through the facilitated movement of capital is accelerate the development of capitalist relations of production worldwide. The social alienation attributable to the production process is far more profound than the social alienation owing to competitive trade between structurally unequal economies. Once again, the legitimate concerns about economic justice must focus primarily on the relations of production, and secondarily on the relations of exchange.

Job Losses

Lamy admitted that free trade can be dislocating: "No doubt about it, trade opening has led to some job losses globally and in the US". He added, "Some of the wage stagnation that has beset American workers is due to competition from lower-wage countries - exporters".

But he insisted, "The role of trade has been rather small compared to other factors. Were trade the culprit for the declining manufacturing jobs, you would very likely have seen domestic manufacturing output decline as foreign products displaced local products on the marketplace. But this wasn't the case. US manufacturing output rose to an all-time record last year [2007]. For the last two decades the Fed says real manufacturing output has risen more than 120 per cent."

In fact, the US Federal Reserve Bank reported that the period 1991-2000 witnessed a sustained cumulative manufacturing growth rate of over fifty per cent, led by the high-technology sector until free trade facilitated off-shoring of software development, manufacturing, and back office services to low-wage countries with qualified pools of talent. This was followed by a period of greatly reduced manufacturing growth. The index of US industrial production rose about seven per cent from 2000 to 2007, followed by a substantial decline in 2008. When a mean annual population growth rate of 0.9 per cent is taken into account, US per capita industrial production was stagnant over the period 2000-2007, and experienced a net decline over the interval 2000-2008 during which free trade in North America under NAFTA and globally was in full swing.

Lamy attributed the loss of US manufacturing jobs primarily to "productivity growth brought about by advances in technology. According to Bob Lawrence at Harvard only about ten per cent of job manufacturing losses in this decade are due to international trade. Other studies put this number at somewhere between five and fifteen per cent. And in the US until very recently productivity growth has been at an all-time high. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that non-farm business sector productivity rose at an annual rate of nearly three per cent for the decades 1950s and 1960s. Each year in the 1995-2000 average manufacturing productivity rose at four per cent. And though this rate has tapered off slightly since 2000, it is still with a rate of 3.7 per cent. Where more goods and services are being produced with fewer workers, job losses are inevitable."

What Lamy did not mention is that this "productivity growth" has been measured as output per person, not output per hour of work. With salaried employees being pushed to work longer hours in the economy in general, and the high-tech sector in particular, output per person has risen much faster than output per hour of work owing to advances in technology.

Citing Lawrence again, Lamy acknowledged, "the principal factor in keeping wages flat has been the sharp rise of the share going to the super-rich, the top one per cent of taxpayers, and the share that has gone to profits which were at near record levels until this year".

Lamy ascribed health care costs as a secondary cause of keeping wages flat. "Labour costs for US corporations have actually risen 25 per cent since 2000, but nearly the entire increase went to pay the higher bill for health insurance which is twice as expensive today as it was at the beginning of this decade".

However, he added that "WTO does not involve itself in the question of income inequality within a country's border, nor does it in the reduction of health costs".

"Policies aimed at trying to address job loss and stagnant wages through trade measures will not fix the problem of manufacturing job erosion and it could, on the contrary, lead to a deterioration of this most vibrant part of the US economy today", he said.

Financial Crisis: The Need for Regulation and Transparency

Turning to the global financial crisis, Lamy cautioned, "The immediate problem we face is the credit crunch. Roughly ninety per cent of international trade is financed with a short-term credit. Trade finance is ... one of the [most] favoured since it provides creditors with an obvious collateral which is boatload of cargo. Yet trade finance is being offered at 300 basis points about the LIBOR, and even at this high price it has been very difficult for some developing countries to get trade finance."

"As we witness the financial crisis bleed into the real economy, the lack of such a safety harness in the global financial system is in my view glaringly apparent ... What is clear is that the international financial system suffers from a lack of regulation, a lack of transparency, a lack of accountability", he said. "Trade in goods and services represents only about two per cent of international transactions, but it takes place in one of the most internationally-regulated environments ever created. No such regulations exist for international finance, and drawing them up will be considerably more difficult and complex than concluding the Doha round, itself a relatively complex series of negotiations".

Pressing for a successful conclusion of the Doha Round of negotiations, he said, "No international agreement on finance or climate change is possible today without China, without India, without Brazil or Indonesia on board. And this is why the importance of reaching the Doha agreement extends beyond the confines of trade. Compared to negotiations regulating international finance and climate change measures, the Doha Round is a sort of low-hanging fruit."

Farm Subsidies

"In the media, this July meeting [of the Doha Round] was portrayed as a failure", but Lamy observed, "An agreement is now on the table ... for slashing trade-distorting domestic farm subsidies. We have known for some time that direct export subsidies will be eliminated in agriculture. Likewise we have known that in the rich countries duties will be eliminated on at least 97 per cent of exports from the poorest countries."

"We all agree that the rules that were negotiated fifteen years ago [in the Uruguay Round] do not fit the world of today. Rules, which permit rich countries to pour billions of dollars into agricultural programs which impoverish developing countries and farmers, are seen by many as inequitable. Many find it unjust to have a WTO tariff system where tariffs in rich countries are three or four times higher on exports from the poorest countries than they are on products from other rich countries."

If and when agricultural farm subsidies are ended in the US, this would put additional pressure on US farmers while relieving Mexican farmers, thus reducing the push to emigrate and potentially decelerating undocumented immigration into the US. It would likely reduce some of the socio-economically distorting effects of free trade under NAFTA between the US and Mexico, and shift some economic hardships from one group to another.

Lamy concluded by saying that we can solve the economic crisis, climate change, poverty alleviation, instability of international finance "only if we pursue those solutions collectively through the rules-based international system that all of us have worked so hard to create".

Free Trade, Global Imbalances, and Immigration

In response to a question on the potential differential impact of free trade on national economies characterized by great differences in purchasing power parity, wage structures, and sectoral value added, resulting in enormous trade imbalances and immigration flows, Lamy said, "The harsh reality is that opening trade reshuffles economic and social fabrics, and that creates political hardship. In whichever condition, the moment some of your constituencies are better off, others are worse off, you have a political problem."

"Yes, there are large imbalances in the US economy. There is a huge trade deficit ... This has to be seen sort of globally. Very talented economists will tell you that the US trade deficit is nothing [more] than the other [side of the] coin of the US rate of saving. It has to be financed, and it is external finance that sort of matches the lack of domestic savings", he commented.

"And if you take the example of the US, and you look at this huge trade deficit with China, people see this as a US-China issue. Whereas, they don't realize that a large part of this huge trade deficit (bilateral) is offset by a Chinese deficit with many Asian countries who produce goods which then go to China which then go to the US. It's the old example of the i-Pod which is shipped from China to the US for $100 and you have $5 of Chinese added value in that."

Lamy continued, "I personally believe that issue of immigration is there to stay. Trade, no trade, big trade, trade deficit, trade surplus - migrations in this planet occur for reasons which are of a sort of such a compelling nature that I wouldn't link them to trade. The only prescription I would make is that if you believe that migrations are sort of a hardship for many, making sure that goods and money flow freely is the right way to reduce the incentive to immigration. If trade or finance were to flow less than they flow today, then the constraint on people to move would probably be harder."

Lamy apparently brushed off concerns about swelling global financial and trade imbalances as well as the social hardships associated with immigration driven by economic desperation. Yet it is the monumental debt and deficit burdens in the US that are at the root of the global financial crisis. Furthermore, his argument implies that the undocumented migration from Mexico and Central America to the US would occur regardless of free trade, which is not borne out by its historical correlation with NAFTA. The argument that the free flow of goods and capital will reduce the incentive to immigration applies only between two national economic structures that are qualitatively similar and whose intensive parameters are quantitatively similar. Under these conditions the free flow of goods and capital may tend to equalize conditions geographically between similar socio-economic frameworks. But between structurally very different economies, the free flow of goods and capital, but not people, introduces profound socio-economic distortions that impel distressed populations to migrate.

Global policymakers need to understand not only the economics of aggregate growth, but the socio-economic impact of globalized flows on the distribution of income and on the welfare of human beings.

Sharat G Lin writes on global political economy, the Middle East, India, and the environment. He is affiliated with the San Jose Peace and Justice Center.

Bill Totten

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bailouts Dwarf Spending on Climate and Poverty Crises

by Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh

Foreign Policy In Focus (November 24 2008)

The financial crisis is only one of multiple crises that will affect every country, rich and poor alike.

There's also the global poverty crisis. Tens of millions of people across the developing world are expected to fall into extreme poverty and joblessness as a result of an economic mess originating in the United States. This is bad news for workers everywhere, as it means even more brutal competition in the globalized labor pool.

And then there's the climate crisis. If we don't do something about that one, we could find out what a real meltdown feels like.

Yet the richest nations in the world appear fixated almost entirely on the financial crisis, and specifically, on propping up their own financial firms.

A new report by our organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, finds that the approximately $4.1 trillion that the United States and European governments have committed to rescue financial firms is forty times the money they're spending to fight climate and poverty crises in the developing world.

And as officials head to two upcoming global summits, there's strong reason for concern that rich country governments may backtrack even further on their aid and climate finance commitments.

On November 29, the Middle East nation of Qatar will host a Financing for Development conference, where governments will review aid obligations made six years ago. On December 1, international negotiators will convene in Poland to hammer out commitments to fighting climate change, including climate-related financial assistance for developing countries.

The financial crisis has overshadowed both of these major summits. When bank failures escalated in September, the United States and European governments moved with lightning speed to mobilize those $4.1 trillion in resources to aid struggling financial institutions.

For the United States, the total so far comes to about $1.3 trillion, including the $700 billion bailout bill as well as rescues for individual firms, deposit insurance for failed banks, and purchases of banks' short-term debts. In Europe, countries have pledged about $2.8 trillion for bank loan guarantees and cash injections.

More Than Development Aid

The combined $4.1 trillion is more than 45 times the sums the US and Western European governments spent on development aid last year.

Some individual companies have enjoyed bailouts that dwarf the size of country aid packages. For example, the US government's $152.5 billion rescue plan for AIG greatly exceeds the $90.7 billion US and European governments spent on aid to all developing countries in 2007. And remember when AIG executives headed off to a luxury resort a few days after getting their taxpayer bailout? The tab for that junket - $440,000 - came to roughly the equivalent of US food aid last year to Lebanon, a country struggling to recover from conflict.

The biggest company-specific bailout - the $200 billion for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - comes to nearly 1,000 times US economic aid to Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. The $29 billion for investment bank Bear Stearns was far more than the US government's total aid bill of $23.2 billion.

Short-changing countries in such extreme need will only boomerang back to the United States in the form of greater global insecurity and reduced export markets.

Likewise when it comes to climate finance, the US and European governments appear to be a penny wise but a pound foolish. Europe's new and additional funding commitments for a variety of climate-related efforts in developing countries over the next several years add up to only $13.1 billion, and very little of this has been disbursed.

The Swiss government has committed $60 billion to rescue the ailing bank UBS, which invested heavily in US subprime mortgage debt. That's more than five times Europe's total commitments to climate finance for developing countries.

The US Congress has not approved a single dollar of contributions to the developing world's climate change efforts. This is in part because the Bush Administration insisted that such financing be channeled through the World Bank, an institution with a poor environmental track record.

All three crises - financial, poverty, and climate - underscore the inter-connectedness of every nation on the globe. Thus, such extremely lopsided spending priorities, if continued, will only come back to haunt the United States and the rest of the global North in the long run. The richer countries not only have an obligation to clean up the messes they've made abroad. It's also in our own interest.


Sarah Anderson is Global Economy Project Director of the Institute for Policy Studies and John Cavanagh is IPS Director. They are co-authors of the report “Skewed Priorities: How the Bailouts Dwarf Other Global Crisis Spending” and Foreign Policy In Focus contributors.

Published by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a project of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, online at Copyright (c) 2008, Institute for Policy Studies.

Recommended citation:
Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh, "Bailouts Dwarf Spending on Climate and Poverty Crises", (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, November 24 2008).

Production Information:
Author(s): Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh
Editor(s): Emily Schwartz Greco
Production: Jen Doak

Copyright (c) 2008, Institute for Policy Studies.

Bill Totten

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Zombie Economics

Clusterfuck Nation

by Jim Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) (November 24 2008)

Though Citicorp is deemed too big to fail, it's hardly reassuring to know that it's been allowed to sink its fangs into the Mother Zombie that the US Treasury has become and sucked out a multi-billion dollar dose of embalming fluid so it can go on pretending to be a bank for a while longer. I employ this somewhat clunky metaphor to point out that the US Government is no more solvent than the financial zombies it is keeping on walking-dead support. And so this serial mummery of weekend bailout schemes is as much of a fraud and a swindle as the algorithm-derived-securities shenanigans that induced the disease of bank zombification in the first place. The main question it raises is whether, eventually, the creation of evermore zombified US dollars will exceed the amount of previously-created US dollars now vanishing into oblivion through compressive debt deflation.

My guess, given the usual time-lag factor, is that the super-inflation snap-back will occur six to eighteen months from now. And the main result of all this will be our inability to buy the imported oil that comprises two-thirds of the oil we require to keep WalMart and Walt Disney World running. At some point, then, in the early months of the Obama administration, we'll learn that "change" is not a set of mere lifestyle choices but a wrenching transition away from all our familiar and comfortable habits into a stark and rigorous new economic landscape.

The credit economy is dead and the dead credit residue of that dead economy is going where dead things go. It came into the world as "money" and it is going out of this world as a death-dealing disease, and we're not going to get over this disease until we stop generating additional zombie money out of no productive activity whatsoever. The campaign to sustain the unsustainable is, besides war, the greatest pitfall this society can stumble into. It represents a squandering of our remaining scant resources and can only produce the kind of extreme political disappointment that wrecks nations and leads to major conflicts between them. I don't know how much Mr Obama buys into the current adopt-a-zombie program - his Treasury designee Timothy Geithner was apparently in on this weekend's Citicorp deal - but the President would be wise to steer clear of whatever the walking dead in the Bush corner are still up to.

All the activities based on getting something for nothing are dead or dying now, in particular buying houses and cars on credit and so it should not be a surprise that the two major victims are the housing and car industries. Notice, by the way, that these are the two major ingredients of an economy based on building suburban sprawl. That's over, too. We're done building it and the stuff we've already built is destined to loose both money value and usefulness as the wrenching transition goes forward.

All this obviously begs the question: what kind of economy are we going to live in if the old one is toast? Well, it's also pretty obvious that it will have to be based on activities productively aimed at keeping human beings alive in an ecology that has a future. Once you grasp this, you will see that there is no reason to despair and more than enough for all of us to do, so we can recover from the zombie nation disease and get on with the next chapter of American history - and I sure hope that Mr Obama will get with the new program.

To be specific about this new economy, we're going to have to make things again, and raise things out of the earth, locally, and trade these things for money of some kind that we earn through our own productive activities. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is optional. The only other option is to go through a violent sociopolitical convulsion. We ought to know from prior examples in world history that this is not a desirable experience. So, to avoid that, we really have to put our shoulders to the wheel and get to work on things that matter, and do it at a scale that is consistent with what the world really has to offer right now, especially in terms of available energy.

In my view - and I know this is controversial - a much larger proportion of the US population will have to be employed in growing the food we eat. There are many ways of arranging this, some more fair than others, and I hope the better angels of our nature steer us in the direction of fairness and justice. The prospects of a devalued dollar imply that we very shortly will not be able to get the all the oil- and gas-based "inputs" that have made petro-agriculture possible the past century. The consequences of this are so unthinkable that we have not been thinking about it. And, of course, the further implications of current land-use allocation, and the property ownership issues entailed, suggests formidable difficulties in re-arranging the farming sector. The sooner we face all this, the better.

As the fiesta of "globalism" (Tom Friedman-style) draws to a close - another consequence of currency problems - we'll have to figure out how to make things in this country again. We will not be manufacturing things at the scale, or in the manner, we were used to in, say, 1962. We'll have to do it far more modestly, using much more meager amounts of energy than we did in the past. My guess is that we will get the electricity for doing this mostly from water. It may actually be too late - from a remaining capital resources point-of-view - to ramp up a new phase of the nuclear power industry (and there are plenty of arguments from the practical and economic to the ethical against it). But we have to hold a public discussion about it, if only to clear the air and get on with other things, namely the new activites of But I would hasten to warn readers (again!) that we'll probably have to do these things more modestly too (don't count on giant wind "farms"), and that we are liable to be disappointed by what they can actually provide for us (don't expect to run WalMart on wind, solar, algae-fuels, etc).

In any case, we're not going back to a "consumer" economy. We're heading into a hard work economy in which people derive their pleasures and gratification more traditionally - mainly through the company of their fellow human beings (which is saying a lot, for those of you who have forgotten what that's about). Our current investments in "education" - ie training people to become marketing executives for chain stores - will delude Americans for a while about what kind of work is really available. But before long, the younger adults will realize that there are enormous opportunities for them in a new and very different economy. We will still have commerce - even if it's not the K-Mart blue-light-special variety - and the coming generation will have to rebuild all the local, multi-layered networks of commercial inter-dependency that were destroyed by the rise of the chain stores. In short, get ready for local business. It will surely be part and parcel of our local food-growing and manufacturing activities.

I hate to keep harping on this - but since nobody else is really talking about it, at least in the organs of public discussion, the job is left to me - we have to get cracking on the revival of the railroad system in this country, if we expect to remain a united country. This is such a no-brainer that the absence of any talk about it is a prime symptom of the zombie disease that has eaten away our brains. Automobiles (the way we use them) and airplanes are utterly dependent on liquid hydrocarbon fuels, and you can be certain we'll have trouble getting them. You can run trains by other means - electricity being state-of-the-art in those parts of the world that do it most successfully. I know that California just voted to create a high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It's an optimistic sign, but it shows more than a little techno-grandiose over-reach. High speed rail would require a mega-expensive re-do of the tracks. We need to scale our ambitions for this more realistically. California (and every other region of America) would benefit much more from normal-speed trains running every hour on the hour on tracks that already exist than from a mega-expensive, grandiose sci-fi program that might not get built for ten years. The dregs of the Big Three automakers can and should be reorganized to produce the rolling stock for a revived railroad system.

Even amidst the financial carnage underway right now, the public is enjoying a respite from high-priced gasoline, but it is due to be short-lived. As I've already said, we are in danger not just of oil prices going way back up again, but of losing access to our supplies from the exporting countries. In other words, we're just as likely to face shortages as high prices, and soon. Oil shortages are certain to produce a political freak-out here unless we get our heads screwed on right - and this means that Mr Obama had better prepare quickly for a comprehensive action plan in the face of such an emergency (which has to include a robust public information initiative).

In the meantime, Mr Obama must dissociate himself from all activities aimed at the care and feeding of zombies. Mr Obama is correct that there is one president and one government at a time, and since this is the case in reality, he must avoid being contaminated by the choices they make as their clock ticks out. Obviously, world markets might be more disturbed if Mr Obama were to step up and actively contradict everything that is being done to cultivate zombies right now. He is in a very delicate position. But being a man of intelligence and sensibility, he may successfully navigate this rough passage.

That this melt-down is building straight into the Christmas holidays is one of those accidents of history that leaves one reeling in wonder and nausea. The cable networks better be prepared to bombard the public with round-the-clock showings of It's A Wonderful Life, because they're going to need all the moral support they can get as zombies stalk through the silent night, holy night.

My new novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available at all booksellers.

Bill Totten

Don't believe the hype

Barack Obama is being lauded by liberals but the truth about him is that he represents the worst of American power.

by John Pilger

New Statesman (November 13 2008)

My first visit to Texas was in 1968, on the fifth anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dallas. I drove south, following the line of telegraph poles to the small town of Midlothian, where I met Penn Jones Jr, editor of the Midlothian Mirror. Save for his drawl and fine boots, everything about Penn was the antithesis of the Texas stereotype. Having exposed the racists of the John Birch Society, his printing press had been repeatedly firebombed. Week after week, he painstakingly assembled evidence that all but demolished the official version of Kennedy's murder.

This was journalism as it had been before corporate journalism was invented, before the first schools of journalism were set up and a mythology of liberal neutrality was spun around those whose "professionalism" and "objectivity" carried an unspoken obligation to ensure that news and opinion were in tune with an establishment consensus, regardless of the truth. Journalists such as Penn Jones, independent of vested power, indefatigable and principled, often reflect ordinary American attitudes, which have seldom conformed to the stereotypes promoted by the corporate media on both sides of the Atlantic.

Read American Dreams: Lost and Found (1999) by the masterly Studs Terkel, who died on 31 October, or scan the surveys that unerringly attribute enlightened views to a majority who believe that "government should care for those who cannot care for themselves" and are prepared to pay higher taxes for universal health care, who support nuclear disarmament and want their troops out of other people's countries.

Returning to Texas, I am struck again by those so unlike the redneck stereotype, in spite of the burden of a form of brainwashing placed on most Americans from a tender age: that theirs is the most superior society in the world, and all means are justified, including the spilling of copious blood, in maintaining that superiority.

That is the subtext of Barack Obama's "oratory". He says he wants to build up US military power; and he threatens to ignite a new war in Pakistan, killing yet more brown-skinned people. That will bring tears, too. Unlike those on election night, these other tears will be unseen in Chicago and London. This is not to doubt the sincerity of much of the response to Obama's election, which happened not because of the unction that has passed for news reporting since 4 November (eg, "liberal Americans smiled and the world smiled with them"), but for the same reasons that millions of angry emails were sent to the White House and Congress when the "bailout" of Wall Street was revealed, and because most Americans are fed up with war.

Two years ago, this anti-war vote installed a Democratic majority in Congress, only to watch the Democrats hand over more money to George W Bush to continue his blood-fest. For his part, the "anti-war" Obama voted to give Bush what he wanted. Yes, Obama's election is historic, a symbol of great change to many. But it is equally true that the American elite has grown adept at using the black middle and management class. The courageous Martin Luther King recognised this when he linked the human rights of black Americans with the human rights of the Vietnamese, then being slaughtered by a "liberal" Democratic administration. And he was shot. In striking contrast, a young black major serving in Vietnam, Colin Powell, was used to "investigate" and whitewash the infamous My Lai massacre. As Bush's secretary of state, Powell was often described as a "liberal" and was considered ideal to lie to the United Nations about Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Condaleezza Rice, lauded as a successful black woman, has worked assiduously to deny the Palestinians justice.

Obama's first two crucial appointments represent a denial of the wishes of his supporters on the principal issues on which they voted. The vice-president-elect, Joe Biden, is a proud warmaker and Zionist. Rahm Emanuel, who is to be the all-important White House chief of staff, is a fervent "neoliberal" devoted to the doctrine that led to the present economic collapse and impoverishment of millions. He is also an "Israel-first" Zionist who served in the Israeli army and opposes meaningful justice for the Palestinians - an injustice that is at the root of Muslim people's loathing of the US and the spawning of jihadism.

No serious scrutiny of this is permitted within the histrionics of Obama mania, just as no serious scrutiny of the betrayal of the majority of black South Africans was permitted within the "Mandela moment". This is especially marked in Britain, where America's divine right to "lead" is important to elite British interests. The Observer, which supported Bush's war in Iraq, echoing his fabricated evidence, now announces, without evidence, that "America has restored the world's faith in its ideals". These "ideals", which Obama will swear to uphold, have overseen, since 1945, the destruction of fifty governments, including democracies, and thirty popular liberation movements, causing the deaths of countless men, women and children.

None of this was uttered during the election campaign. Had that been allowed, there might even have been recognition that liberalism as a narrow, supremely arrogant, war-making ideology is destroying liberalism as a reality. Prior to Blair's criminal warmaking, ideology was denied by him and his media mystics. "Blair can be a beacon to the world", declared the Guardian in 1997. "[He is] turning leadership into an art form".

Today, merely insert "Obama". As for historic moments, there is another that has gone unreported but is well under way - liberal democracy's shift towards a corporate dictatorship, managed by people regardless of ethnicity, with the media as its clichéd façade. "True democracy", wrote Penn Jones Jr, the Texas truth-teller, "is constant vigilance: not thinking the way you're meant to think, and keeping your eyes wide open at all times".


John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the fifty heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger", wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him".

Bill Totten