Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, May 31, 2010

Beijing suspects false flag attack

on South Korean corvette

by Wayne Madsen

Online Journal Contributing Writer (May 28 2010)

Wayne Madsen Report's intelligence sources in Asia suspect that the March attack on the South Korean Navy anti-submarine warfare (ASW) corvette, the Cheonan, was a false flag attack designed to appear as coming from North Korea.

One of the main purposes for increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula was to apply pressure on Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to reverse course on moving the US Marine Corps base off Okinawa. Hatoyama has admitted that the tensions over the sinking of the Cheonan played a large part in his decision to allow the US Marines to remain on Okinawa. Hatoyama's decision has resulted in a split in the ruling center-left coalition government, a development welcome in Washington, with Mizuho Fukushima, the Social Democratic Party leader threatening to bolt the coalition over the Okinawa reversal.

The Cheonan was sunk near Baengnyeong Island, a westernmost spot that is far from the South Korean coast, but opposite the North Korean coast. The island is heavily militarized and within artillery fire range of North Korean coastal defenses, which lie across a narrow channel.

The Cheonan, an ASW corvette, was decked out with state-of-the-art sonar, plus it was operating in waters with extensive hydrophone sonar arrays and acoustic underwater sensors. There is no South Korean sonar or audio evidence of a torpedo, submarine or mini-sub in the area. Since there is next to no shipping in the channel, the sea was silent at the time of the sinking.

However, Baengnyeong Island hosts a joint US-South Korea military intelligence base and the US Navy SEALS operate out of the base. In addition, four US Navy ships were in the area, part of the joint US-South Korean Exercise Foal Eagle, during the sinking of the Cheonan. An investigation of the suspect torpedo's metallic and chemical fingerprints show it to be of German manufacture. There are suspicions that the US Navy SEALS maintains a sampling of European torpedoes for sake of plausible deniability for false flag attacks. Also, Berlin does not sell torpedoes to North Korea, however, Germany does maintain a close joint submarine and submarine weapons development program with Israel.

The presence of the USNS Salvor, one of the participants in Foal Eagle, so close to Baengnyeong Island during the sinking of the South Korean corvette also raises questions.

The Salvor, a civilian Navy salvage ship, which participated in mine laying activities for the Thai Marines in the Gulf of Thailand in 2006, was present near the time of the blast with a complement of twelve deep sea divers.

Beijing, satisfied with North Korea's Kim Jong Il's claim of innocence after a hurried train trip from Pyongyang to Beijing, suspects the US Navy's role in the Cheonan's sinking, with particular suspicion on the role of the Salvor. The suspicions are as follows:

1. The Salvor engaged in a seabed mine-installation operation, in other words, attaching horizontally fired anti-submarine mines on the sea floor in the channel.

2. The Salvor was doing routine inspection and maintenance on seabed mines, and put them into an electronic active mode (hair trigger release) as part of the inspection program.

3. A SEALS diver attached a magnetic mine to the Cheonan, as part of a covert program aimed at influencing public opinion in South Korea, Japan and China.

The Korean peninsula tensions have conveniently overshadowed all other agenda items on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visits to Beijing and Seoul.

Previously published in the Wayne Madsen Report.

Copyright (c) 2010

Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist and nationally-distributed columnist. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).

Copyright (c) 1998-2007 Online Journal

Bill Totten

Did an American Mine Sink South Korean Ship?

by Yoichi Shimatsu

New America Media, News Analysis (May 27 2010)

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Myung-bak has claimed "overwhelming evidence" that a North Korean torpedo sank the corvette Cheonan on March 26, killing 46 sailors. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that there's "overwhelming evidence" in favor of the theory that North Korea sank the South Korean Navy warship Cheonan. But the articles of proof presented so far by military investigators to an official inquiry board have been scanty and inconsistent.

There's yet another possibility, that a US rising mine sank the Cheonan in a friendly-fire accident.

In the recent US-China strategic talks in Shanghai and Beijing, the Chinese side dismissed the official scenario presented by the Americans and their South Korean allies as not credible. This conclusion was based on an independent technical assessment by the Chinese military, according to a Beijing-based military affairs consultant to the People Liberation Army.

Hardly any of the relevant facts that counter the official verdict have made headline news in either South Korea or its senior ally, the United States.

The first telltale sign of an official smokescreen involves the location of the Choenan sinking - Byeongnyeong Island (pronounced Pyongnang) in the Yellow Sea. On the westernmost fringe of South Korean territory, the island is dominated by a joint US-Korean base for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations. The sea channel between Byeongnyeong and the North Korean coast is narrow enough for both sides to be in artillery range of each other.

Anti-sub warfare is based on sonar and acoustic detection of underwater craft. Since civilian traffic is not routed through the channel, the noiseless conditions are near-perfect for picking up the slightest agitation, for example from a torpedo and any submarine that might fire it.

North Korea admits it does not possess an underwater craft stealthy enough to slip past the advanced sonar and audio arrays around Byeongnyeong Island, explained North Korean intelligence analyst Kim Myong Chol in a news release. "The sinking took place not in North Korean waters but well inside tightly guarded South Korean waters, where a slow-moving North Korean submarine would have great difficulty operating covertly and safely, unless it was equipped with AIP (air-independent propulsion) technology".

The Cheonan sinking occurred in the aftermath of the March 11 to 18 Foal Eagle Exercise, which included anti-submarine maneuvers by a joint US-South Korean squadron of five missile ships. A mystery surrounds the continued presence of the US missile cruisers for more than eight days after the ASW exercise ended.

Only one reporter, Joohee Cho of ABC News, picked up the key fact that the Foal Eagle flotilla curiously included the USNS Salvor, a diving-support ship with a crew of twelve Navy divers. The lack of any minesweepers during the exercise leaves only one possibility: the Salvor was laying bottom mines.

Ever since an American cruiser was damaged by one of Saddam Hussein's rising mines, also known as bottom mines, in the Iraq War, the US Navy has pushed a crash program to develop a new generation of mines. The US Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command has also been focused on developing counterparts to the fearsome Chinese naval "assassin's mace", which is propelled by a rocket engine.

A rising mine, which is effective only in shallow waters, rests atop a small platform on the sea floor under a camouflage of sand and gravel. Its detection system uses acoustics and magnetic readings to pick up enemy ships and submarines. When activated, jets of compressed air or solid-fuel rockets lift the bomb, which self-guides toward the magnetic center of the target. The blast rips the keel, splitting the ship or submarine into two neat pieces, just as was done to the RKOS Cheonan.

A lateral-fired torpedo, in contrast, "holes" the target's hull, tilting the vessel in the classic war movie manner. The South Korean government displayed to the press the intact propeller shaft of a torpedo that supposedly struck the Cheonan. Since torpedoes travel between forty and fifty knots per hour (which is faster than collision tests for cars), a drive shaft would crumble upon impacting the hull and its bearing and struts would be shattered or bent by the high-powered blast.

The initial South Korean review stated that the explosive was gunpowder, which would conform to North Korea's crude munitions. This claim was later overturned by the inquiry board, which found the chemical residues to be similar to German advanced explosives. Due to sanctions against Pyongyang and its few allies, it is hardly credible that North Korea could obtain NATO-grade ordnance.

Thus, the mystery centers on the USNS Salvor, which happened to be yet right near Byeongyang Island at the time of the Cheonan sinking and far from its home base, Pearl Harbor. The inquiry board in Seoul has not questioned the officers and divers of the Salvor, which oddly is not under the command of the 7th Fleet but controlled by the innocuous-sounding Military Sealift Command. Diving-support ships like the Salvor are closely connected with the Office of Naval Intelligence since their duties include secret operations such as retrieving weapons from sunken foreign ships, scouting harbor channels and laying mines, as when the Salvor trained Royal Thai Marine divers in mine-laying in the Gulf of Thailand in 2006, for example.

The Salvor's presence points to an inadvertent release of a rising mine, perhaps because its activation system was not switched off. A human error or technical glitch is very much within the realm of possibility due to the swift current and strong tides that race through the Byeongnyeong Channel. The arduous task of mooring the launch platforms to the sea floor allows the divers precious little time for double-checking the electronic systems.

If indeed it was an American rising mine that sank the Cheonan, it would constitute a friendly-fire accident. That in itself is not grounds for a criminal investigation against the presidential office and, at worst, amounts only to negligence by the military. However, any attempt to falsify evidence and engage in a media cover-up for political purposes constitutes tampering, fraud, perjury and possibly treason.


Yoichi Shimatsu, former editor of the Japan Times, is an environmental consultant and a commentator on Asian affairs for CCTV-9 Dialogue.

Bill Totten

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Lost Leaders

by Dmitry Orlov

Club Orlov (May 29 2010)

It is embarrassing to be lost. It is even more embarrassing for a leader to be lost. And what's really really embarrassing to all concerned is when national and transnational corporate leaders attempt to tackle a major disaster and are found out to have been issuing marching orders based on the wrong map. Everyone then executes a routine of turning toward each other in shock, frowning while shaking their heads slowly from side to side and looking away in disgust. After that, these leaders might as well limit their public pronouncements to the traditional "Milk, milk, lemonade, round the corner fudge is made". Whatever they say, the universal reaction becomes: "What leaders? We don't have any."

Getting lost can be traumatic for the rest of us too. When we suddenly realize that we don't know where we are, urgent neural messages are exchanged between our prefrontal cortex, which struggles to form a coherent picture of what's happening, our amygdala, whose job is to hold on to a sense of where we are, and our hippocampus, which motivates us to get back to a place we know as quickly as we possibly can. This strange bit of internal wiring explains why humans who are only slightly lost tend to trot off in a random direction and promptly become profoundly lost. After these immediate biochemical reactions have run their course, we go through the usual stages of:

1. denial - "We are not lost! The ski lodge is just over the next ridge, or the next, or the next ..."

2. anger - "We are wasting time! Shut up and keep trotting!"

3. bargaining - "The map must be wrong; either that or someone has dynamited the giant boulder that should be right there ..."

4. depression - "We'll never get there! We're all going to die out here!" and

5. acceptance - "We are not lost; we are right here, wherever it is. We better find some shelter and start a campfire before it gets dark and cold."

Some people don't survive, some do; the difference in outcome turns out to have precious little to do with skill or training, and everything to do with motivation - the desire to survive no matter how much pain and discomfort that involves - and the mental flexibility to adjust one's mental map on the fly to fit the new reality, and to reach stage 5 quickly. Those who go on attempting to operate based on an outdated mental map tend to die in utter bewilderment.

Working with an outdated mental map is a big problem for anyone; for a leader, it may very well spell the end of the position of leadership. After the catastrophe at Chernobyl, the Soviet leaders attempted to operate, for as long as possible, with a mental map that included a relatively intact and generally serviceable nuclear reactor called "Chernobyl Energy Block Number 4". "The reactor has been shut down and is being cooled", went the official pronouncements from the Kremlin, "we are pumping in water to cool it". After a while it became known that there is no reactor - just a smoldering, molten hole spewing radioactive smoke - and the coolant water, prodigious quantities of which were indeed pumped in and spilled in its general vicinity. It instantly boiled away into radioactive steam (which drifted downwind and eventually rained out, poisoning even more of the land). The rest of it leaked out, forming radioactive settling ponds and threatening to further leak into and poison the river that flows through Kiev. As you might imagine, that little episode turned out to be just a little bit embarrassing. Anyone who could think started to think: "Following these leaders is not conducive to survival. Let's make our own plans." Gorbachev went on with his usual long-winded blah-blahs, but the milk-milk-lemonade routine would have served him just as well.

More recently, we have been exposed to the spectacle of corporate leaders and public officials attempting to operate, for as long as possible, with a mental map that includes a blown-out but otherwise serviceable deep-water oil well in the Gulf of Mexico variously called "Deepwater Horizon" or "Macondo" or "MC252". A number of unsuccessful attempts have been made to capture the oil and gas that have been escaping from it using at least three different techniques. BP - the well's owner - is an oil company, and so their first reaction was to get and sell that oil no matter what. They tried to fit the well with a "top hat" to get all of the oil, but when their contraption didn't work because it got clogged by methane hydrate crystals they stuck a smaller pipe into the leak, just to get and sell some of the oil, and when that worked it made them happy. But, coming under pressure to do something about all the oil leaking out and poisoning the environment, they finally decided to try shutting down the well by squiring various substances into it. The procedures they've tried, going by idiotic Top Gun names like "junk shot" and "top kill" - have all been to no avail. At some point it becomes clear that there is no oil well - just a large, untidy hole in the sea bottom with hydrocarbons spewing out of it, forming huge surface slicks and underwater plumes of oil that kill all they encounter and eventually wash up on land to continue the damage there, turning the Gulf Coast into a disaster area. Starting in another month or so the toxic soup composed of oily tropical seawater and decomposing coastal vegetation and sea life will be stirred up and driven inland by tropical storms and hurricanes. Gulf Coast oil-grunge will become the de facto new national style: oil-streaked skin and clothing and perhaps a dead pelican for a sunhat.

When things go horribly wrong, it is natural for us mere mortals to try to obtain a bit of psychological comfort by holding on to familiar images. A person who has totaled his car tends to continue to refer to the twisted wreckage as "my car" instead of "the wreckage of my car". In the case someone's wrecked car, this may be accepted as mere shorthand, but in many other cases this tendency results in people working with an outdated mental map which leads them astray, because the properties of a wreck are quite different from those of an intact object. For example, our lost leaders are continuing to refer to "the financial system" instead of "the wreck of the financial system". If they had the flexibility to make that mental switch, perhaps they wouldn't insist on continuing to pump in more and more public debt, only to watch it spew out again through a tangle of broken pipes so horrific that it defies all understanding, with quite a lot of it mysteriously dribbling into the vaults and pockets of bankers and billionaire investors. It will be interesting to watch their attempts at a financial "top kill" or "junk shot" to plug the ensuing geyser of toxic debt.

It is natural for us to naively expect our leaders - be they corporate executives or their increasingly decorative and superfluous adjuncts in government - to be our betters, having been picked for leadership positions by their ability to lead us through difficult and unfamiliar terrain. We expect them to have the mental agility and flexibility to be able to revise their mental maps as the circumstances dictate. We don't expect them to be stupid, and are surprised to find that indeed they are. How is that possible? Mental enfeeblement of the ruling class of a collapsing empire is not without precedent: the British imperial experiment was clearly doomed as early as the end of World War One, but it took until well into World War Two for this fact to register in the enfeebled brains of the British ruling class. In his 1941 essay England your England, George Orwell offers the following explanation:

... [T]he British ruling class obviously could not admit that their usefulness of was at an end. Had they done that they would have had to abdicate ... Clearly there was only one escape for them - into stupidity. They could keep society in its existing shape only by being unable to grasp that any improvement was possible. Difficult though it was, they achieved it, largely by fixing their eyes on the past and refusing to notice the changes that were going on [a]round them".

And so it is now: as the American empire has been crumbling, its leaders, both corporate and corporatist, were being specially selected for being unable to draw their own conclusions based on their own independent reasoning or on the evidence of their own senses, relying instead on "intelligence" that is second-hand and obsolete. These leaders are now attempting to lead us all on a dream-walk to oblivion.

Back in 2008 I published the prediction that while Chernobyl was rather decisive in putting paid to the Soviet scientific/technological program and in dispelling all remaining trust in the Soviet political establishment, the US program of scientific/technological progress and ruthless exploitation of nature is more likely to suffer a death by a thousand cuts. But if one of these cuts hits an artery early on, a thousand cuts would be overkill. Just as with any wreck, the properties of a radically phlebotomized body politic are rather different from those of a healthy one, or even a sick one - not that our lost leaders could notice something like that! They will no doubt go on going on about money and oil (and the predictable lack thereof), but they might as well be telling us about their milk and lemonade, and please hold the drilling mud. How embarrassing!

Bill Totten

How We Wrecked the Ocean

Posted by Gail the Actuary {1}

The Oil Drum (May 17 2010)

We have been hearing a lot about what the oil spill is doing to the ocean. But something else which is also concerning is the condition the ocean was in, even prior to the spill. We live in a finite world. Our continued mistreatment of the ocean, the reduced fish population, and the disappearance of large fish in the last fifty years are all serious concerns.

Jeremy Jackson is the Ritter Professor of Oceanography and Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In this talk, Professor Jackson lays out the shocking state of the ocean today: overfished, overheated, polluted, with indicators that things will get much worse. The film is from TED Talks {2}. The movie is eighteen minutes long and offers subtitles as an option.

Here is the transcript:

I'm an ecologist, mostly a coral reef ecologist. I started out in Chesapeake Bay and went diving in the winter and became a tropical ecologist over night. And it was really a lot of fun for about ten years. I mean, somebody pays you to go around and travel and look at some of the most beautiful places on the planet. And that was what I did.

And I ended up in Jamaica, in the West Indies, where the coral reefs were really among the most extraordinary, structurally, that I ever saw in my life. And this picture here, it's really interesting, it shows two things. First of all, it's in black and white because the water was so clear and you could see so far and film was so slow in the 1960s and the early 1970s, you took pictures in black and white. The other thing it shows you is that, although there's this beautiful forest of coral, there are no fish in that picture. Those reefs at Discovery Bay Jamaica were the most studied coral reefs in the world, for twenty years. We were the best and the brightest. People came to study our reefs from Australia, which is sort of funny because now we go to theirs. And the view of scientists about how coral reefs work, how they ought to be, was based on these reefs without any fish. Then, in 1980, there was a hurricane, Hurricane Allen. I put half the lab up in my house. The wind blew very strong. The waves were 25 to fifty feet high. And the reefs disappeared, and new islands formed. And we thought, "Well, we're real smart. We know that hurricanes have always happened in the past." And we publish a paper in Science, the first time that anybody ever described the destruction on a coral reef by a major hurricane. And we predicted what would happen. And we got it all wrong. And the reason was because of overfishing, and the fact that a last common-grazer, a sea urchin, died. And within a few months after that sea urchin dying, the seaweed started to grow. And that is the same reef. That's the same reef fifteen years ago. That's the same reef today. The coral reefs of the north coast of Jamaica have a few percent live coral cover and a lot of seaweed and slime. And that's more or less the story of the coral reefs of the Caribbean, and increasingly, tragically, the coral reefs worldwide.

Now, that's my little, depressing story. All of us in our sixties and seventies have comparable depressing stories. There are tens of thousands of those stories out there. And it's really hard to conjure up much of a sense of well-being, because it just keeps getting worse. And the reason it keeps getting worse is that, after a natural catastrophe, like a hurricane, it used to be that there was some kind of successional sequence of recovery, but what's going on now is that overfishing and pollution and climate change are all interacting in a way that prevents that. And so I'm going to sort of go through and talk about those three kinds of things.

We hear a lot about the collapse of cod. It's difficult to imagine that two, or some historians would say three, world wars were fought during the colonial era for the control of cod. Cod fed most of the people of Western Europe. It fed the slaves brought to the Antilles. The song "Jamaica Farewell" - "Aki rice salt fish are nice" - is an emblem of the importance of salt cod from northeastern Canada. It all collapsed in the 1980s and the 1990s. 35,000 people lost their jobs. And that was the beginning of a kind of serial depletion from bigger and tastier species to smaller and not-so-tasty species, from species that were near to home, to species that were all around the world, and what have you. It's a little hard to understand that, because you can go to a Costco in the United States and buy cheap fish. You ought to read the label to find out where it came from, but it's still cheap, and everybody thinks it's okay.

And it's hard to communicate this. And so, one way that I think is really interesting, is to talk about sport fish, because people like to go out and catch fish. It's one of those things. This picture here shows the trophy fish, the biggest fish caught by people who pay a lot of money to get on a boat, go to a place off of Key West in Florida, drink a lot of beer, throw a lot of hooks and lines into the water, come back with the biggest and the best fish, and the champion trophy fish are put on this board, where people take a picture, and this guy is obviously really excited about that fish. Well, that's what it's like now, but this is what it was like in the 1950s, from the same boat in the same place on the same board on the same dock. And the trophy fish were so big, that you couldn't put any of those small fish up on it. And the average size trophy fish weighed 250 to 300 pounds, goliath groper. And if you wanted to go out and kill something, you could pretty much count on being able to catch one of those fish. And they tasted really good. And people paid less in 1950 dollars to catch that than what people pay now to catch those little, tiny fish. And that's everywhere.

It's not just the fish though that are disappearing. Industrial fishing uses big stuff, big machinery. We use nets that are twenty miles long. We use long lines that have one million or two million hooks. And we trawl, which means to take something the size of a tractor trailer truck that weighs thousands and thousands of pounds, put it on a big chain, and drag it across the sea floor to stir up the bottom and catch the fish. And think of it as being kind of the bulldozing of a city or of a forest, because it clears it away. And the habitat destruction is unbelievable. This is photograph, a typical photograph of what the continental shelves of the world look like. You can see the rows in the bottom, the way you can see the rows in a field that has just been plowed to plant corn. What that was, was a forest of sponges and coral, which is a critical habitat for the development of fish. What it is now is mud. And the area of the ocean floor that has been transformed from forest to level mud, to parking lot, is equivalent to the entire area of all the forests that have ever been cut down on all of the earth in the history of humanity. And we've managed to do that in the last 100 to 150 years.

We tend to think of oil spills and mercury, and we hear a lot about plastic these days. And all of that stuff is really disgusting, but what's really insidious is the biological pollution that happens because of the magnitude of the shifts that it causes to entire ecosystems. And I'm going to just talk very briefly about two kinds of biological pollution. One is introduced species, and the other is what comes from nutrients. So this is the infamous caulerpa taxifolia, the so-called killer algae. A book was written about it. It's a bit of an embarrassment. It was accidentally released from the aquarium in Monaco. It was bred to be cold tolerant, to have in peoples' aquaria. It's very pretty, and it has rapidly started to overgrow the once-very-rich biodiversity of the northwestern Mediterranean. I don't know how many of you remember the movie "The Little Shop of Horrors", but this is the plant of "The Little Shop of Horrors". But, instead of devouring the people in the shop, what it's doing is overgrowing and smothering virtually all of the bottom-dwelling life of the entire northwestern Mediterranean Sea. We don't know anything that eats it. We're trying to do all sorts of genetics and figure out something that could be done, but, as it stands, it's the monster from hell, about which nobody knows what to do.

Now another form of pollution that's biological pollution is what happens from excess nutrients. The green revolution, all of this artificial nitrogen fertilizer, we used too much of it. It's subsidized, which is one of the reasons we used too much of it. It runs down the rivers, and it feeds the plankton, the little microscopic plant cells in the coastal water. But since we ate all the oysters, and we ate all the fish that would eat the plankton, there's nothing to eat the plankton. And there's more and more of it, so it dies of old age, which is unheard of for plankton. And when it dies, it falls to the bottom and then it rots, which means that bacteria break it down. And in the process, they use up all the oxygen. And in using up all the oxygen, they make the environment utterly lethal for anything that can't swim away. And so what we end up with, is a microbial zoo, dominated by bacteria and jellyfish, as you see on the left in front of you. And the only fishery left, and it is a commercial fishery, is the jellyfish fishery you see on the right, where there used to be prawns. Even in Newfoundland, where we used to catch cod, we now have a jellyfish fishery.

And another version of this sort of thing is what is often called red tides or toxic blooms. That picture is just staggering to me. I have talked about it a million times, but it's unbelievable. In the upper right of that picture on the left is almost the Mississippi Delta, and the lower left of that picture is the Texas, Mexico border. You're looking at the entire northwestern Gulf of Mexico. Your looking at one toxic dinoflagellate bloom that can kill fish, made by that beautiful, little creature on the lower right. And in the upper right you see this black sort of cloud moving to shore. That's the same species. And as it comes to shore, and the wind blows, and little droplets of the water get into the air, the emergency rooms of all the hospitals fill up with people with acute respiratory distress. And that's retirement homes on the west coast of Florida. A friend and I did this thing in Hollywood we called Hollywood ocean night. And I was trying to figure out how to explain to actors what's going. And I said, "So, imagine you're in a movie called 'Escape from Malibu' because all the beautiful people have moved to North Dakota, where it's clean and safe. And the only people who are left there are the people who can't afford to move away from the coast, because the coast, instead of being paradise, is harmful to your health."

And then this is amazing. It was when I was on holiday last early autumn in France. This is from the coast of Brittany, which is being enveloped in this green, algal slime. The reason that it attracted so much attention, besides the fact that it's disgusting, is that sea birds flying over it are asphyxiated by the smell and die, and a farmer died of it, and you can imagine the scandal that happened. And so there's this war between the farmers and the fishermen about it all. And the net result is that the beaches of Brittany have to be bulldozed of this stuff on a regular basis.

And then of course there's climate change, and we all know about climate change. And I guess the iconic figure of it is the melting of the ice in the arctic sea. Think about the thousands and thousands of people who died trying to find the Northwest Passage. Well, the Northwest is already there. I think it's sort of funny, it's on the Siberian coast. Maybe the Russians will charge tolls. The governments of the world are taking this really seriously. The military of the arctic nations is taking it really seriously. For all the denial of climate change by government leaders, the CIA and the navies of Norway and the US and Canada, whatever are busily thinking about how they will secure their territory in this inevitability from their point of view. And, of course, arctic communities are toast.

The other kinds of effects of climate change - this is coral bleaching. It's a beautiful picture, right. All that white coral. Except it's supposed to be brown. And what happens is that the corals are a symbiosis, and they have these little algal cells that live inside them. And the algae give the corals sugar, and the corals give the algae nutrients and protection. But when it gets too hot, the algae can't make the sugar. The corals say, "You cheated. You didn't pay your rent." They kick them out, and then they die. Not all of them die; some of them survive. Some more are surviving, but it's really bad news. To try and give you a sense of this, imagine you go camping in July somewhere in Europe or in North America, and you wake up the next morning, and you look around you, and you see that eighty percent of the trees, as far as you can see, have dropped their leaves and are standing there naked. And you come home, and you discover that eighty percent of all the trees in North America and in Europe have dropped their leaves. And then you read in the paper a few weeks later, oh, by the way, a quarter of those died. Well, that's what happened in the Indian Ocean during the 1998 El Nino, an area vastly greater than the size of North America and Europe, when eighty percent of all the corals bleached and a quarter of them died.

And then the really scary thing about all of this, the overfishing, the pollution and the climate change, is that each thing doesn't happen in a vacuum, but there are these, what we call, positive feedbacks. The synergies among them that make the whole vastly greater than the sum of the parts. And the great scientific challenge for people like me in thinking about all this, is do we know how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again? I mean, because we, at this point, we can protect it. But what does that mean? We really don't know.

So what are the oceans going to be like in twenty or fifty years? Well, there won't be any fish except for minnows, and the water will be pretty dirty, and all those kinds of things, and full of mercury, et cetera, et cetera. And dead-zones will get bigger and bigger, and they'll start to merge. And we can imagine something like the dead-zonification of the global, coastal ocean. Then you sure won't want to eat fish that were raised in it, because would be a kind of gastronomic Russian roulette. Sometimes you have a toxic bloom; sometimes you don't. That doesn't sell.

The really scary things though are the physical, chemical, oceanographic things that are happening. As the surface of the ocean gets warmer, the water is lighter when it's warmer, it becomes harder and harder to turn the ocean over. We say, it becomes more strongly stratified. The consequence of that is that all those nutrients that fuel the great anchoveta fisheries, of the sardines of California, or in Peru, or whatever, those slow down, and those fisheries collapse. And, at the same time, water from the surface, which is rich in oxygen, doesn't make it down, and the ocean turns into a desert.

So the question is: How are we all going to respond to this? And we can do all sorts of things to fix it, but in the final analysis, the thing we really need to fix is ourselves. It's not about the fish; it's not about the pollution; it's not about the climate change. It's about us, and our greed and our need for growth and our inability to imagine a world which is different from the selfish world we live in today. So the question is: Will we respond to this or not? I would say that the future of life and the dignity of human beings depends on our doing that.

Thank you.




Bill Totten

Saturday, May 29, 2010

BP oil spill

Can environmental crime ever be made to pay?

by Tom Levitt (May 24 2010)

Million dollar fines and compensation claims may dent the profits of BP and other companies admitting responsibility for ecological disasters but, on their own, are they enough of a deterrent?

The full cost of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to marine and coastal ecology along the US south east coastline, both now and in the future, is only just being realised.

BP has admitted 'full responsibility' for the spill {1}, which occurred after an underwater explosion on its Deepwater Horizon oil rig. A blow-out prevention device that guards against such accidents was not working and an extra device fitted for emergencies was not present on the oil rig.

How much is enough?

In a damning statement, the US environmental group the Sierra Club {2} said that BP, which makes more in profit in a week than it has spent on responding to the oil spill so far, should be liable for a limitless amount of costs.

'There is no limit on the damage done to wildlife. There is no limit on the damage done to coastal communities. There is no limit on the loss of jobs in fishing and tourism. There shouldn't be a limit on the amount that oil companies like BP are required to pay for cleanup', a spokesperson said.

Already more than 19,000 compensation claims have been made, mostly from fishermen. However, the maximum oil companies like BP are liable to pay for such claims is $75 million. A bill aimed at increasing that liability cap to $10 billion has so far been blocked by lawmakers in the Senate who offer the excuse it could adversely impact on small oil drilling companies who can't afford the liability.

BP is still likely to have to pay for most of the clean-up costs associated with the spill, estimated to be as high as $20 billion. Some believe it should also be forced to pay to restore coastal wetlands and ensure the recovery of any wildlife that survive the disaster.

A hopeless deterrent

But are such costs alone likely to prevent future disasters? Not according to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) {3}, which says BP has a history of big pay-outs. Only last year it paid a $87.43 million fine for health and safety mistakes that led to the death of fifteen workers and injury to 170 in an explosion at its Texas City refinery in March 2005.

'That may sound like a lot', says IPS director Daphne Wysham, 'but BP made $163 billion in profits between 2001 and 2009 and another $5.6 billion in the first three months of 2010. Along the way it paid fines for violating the law that totalled roughly $530 million, or one-third of one per cent of the company's profits over the same period.'

Polly Higgins, a campaigning environmental lawyer, says in the end fines were 'hopeless' at deterring companies from taking potentially devastating risks, particularly large multinationals like BP whose profits exceed the GDP of a small country.

'These companies already factor in the legal fine costs - it's an externality that in the end the person buying their final product pays a bit extra to cover', she says.

Shareholder pressure

However, others say BP's falling shareprice and likely drop in annual dividend payout could see shareholders start arguing for more stringent safety measures to prevent the risk of ecological disasters.

Ben Bundock, from legal activists ClientEarth {4}, says BP's response so far to the outbreak is likely as much as about safeguarding against less tangible losses than anything else.

'This isn't just an environmental issue; its a business issue for BP because their reputation is also at stake. They have a relationship with the US authorities to maintain. There could also be a loss of access to new markets and not to mention the billions in share price value.

'When risks are this large, shareholders may start to become more proactive about pushing directors to take account of safety mechanisms to avoid such disasters', says Bundock.

Time for an ecocide law

Higgins says falls in company share prices after previous oil disasters did not last long and were not proven to be an 'effective deterrent' to multinational giants like BP. She argues that the only effective deterrent is an international 'ecocide law' {5} to prosecute companies that damage the environment in the same way that individuals are prosecuted for genocide or war crimes.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) {6} set up in 2002 is currently limited to prosecution of individuals of four crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. Higgins says it should now include another - ecocide - defined as 'the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished'.

'The international crime of ecocide would legally bind BP to take full responsibility for the damage and destruction to, or loss of, ecosystems caused by this incident. Where a large oil spill causes large, long term or severe ecosystem destruction, ecocide prosecution will attract imprisonment of the CEO and liability for restorative justice', says Higgins, who explains this would involve oil companies actively repairing the damage they had caused and not just paying a fine and leaving.

She says the burden of eco-responsibility would provide a strong incentive to oil companies not [to] risk such potentially damaging projects in place from the outset.

Small countries

US activist groups, such as Public Citizen {7}, agree that it is now time to advocate more preventative measures rather than 'polluter pays' strategies.

Director Tyson Slocum says BP's long list of fines, totalling more than $730 million in the US alone in the last few years, shows money alone is not enough.

'The fines clearly have not been a deterrent to BP committing multiple crimes. It is only when we consider permanent sanctions (revocation of leasing rights, withdrawal of corporate charter, et cetera) or criminal prosecution of individual executives will companies get the message.'

Bundock, from Client Earth, says that, rather than the US, it is likely to be smaller, less powerful countries where oil companies have no vested interest in being cooperative that would benefit most from an international crime of ecocide and restorative justice.

'If the oil spill had occurred off the African coast would the response have been as quick? Look at how long it too for the Trafigura incident, when waste was illegally dumped in Cote d'Ivoire, to come to the forefront of international media. The US administration is in a much stronger position to go up against an international multinational but it won't always be so with environmental disasters', he says.









Other Useful Links

Polly Higgin's 'ecocide' law campaign


Bill Totten

Deepwater Horizon

This is What the End of the Oil Age Looks Like

by Richard Heinberg

Post Carbon Institute (May 26 2010)

Lately I've been reading the excellent coverage of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill at, a site frequented by veteran oil geologists and engineers. A couple of adages from the old-timers are worth quoting: "Cut corners all you want, but never downhole", and, "There's fast, there's cheap, and there's right, and you get to pick two".

There will be plenty of blame to go around, as events leading up to the fatal rig explosion are sorted out. Even if efforts to plug the gushing leak succeed sooner rather than later, the damage to the Gulf environment and to the economy of the region will be incalculable and will linger for years if not decades. The deadly stench from oil-oaked marshes - as spring turns to hot, fetid summer - will by itself ruin tens or hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods. Then there's the loss of the seafood industry: we're talking about more than the crippling of the economic backbone of the region; anyone who's spent time in New Orleans (my wife's family all live there) knows that the people and culture of southern Louisiana are literally as well as figuratively composed of digested crawfish, shrimp, and speckled trout. Given the historic political support from this part of the country for offshore drilling, and for the petroleum industry in general, this really amounts to sacrificing the faithful on the altar of oil.

But the following should be an even clearer conclusion from all that has happened, and that is still unfolding: This is what the end of the oil age looks like. The cheap, easy petroleum is gone; from now on, we will pay steadily more and more for what we put in our gas tanks - more not just in dollars, but in lives and health, in a failed foreign policy that spawns foreign wars and military occupations, and in the lost integrity of the biological systems that sustain life on this planet.

The only solution is to do proactively, and sooner, what we will end up doing anyway as a result of resource depletion and economic, environmental, and military ruin: end our dependence on the stuff. Everybody knows we must do this. Even a recent American president (an oil man, it should be noted) admitted that "America is addicted to oil". Will we let this addiction destroy us, or will we overcome it? Good intentions are not enough. Now is the moment for the President, other elected officials at all levels of government, and ordinary citizens to make this our central priority as a nation. We have hard choices to make, and an enormous amount of work to do.

Bill Totten

What If The Oil Spill Just Can't Be Fixed?

by David Roberts (May 26 2010)

The BP Gulf oil disaster is reaching an interesting phase. People's gut instinct, their first reaction, is to find someone to blame. They blame BP for negligence; the Obama administration for its tepid response; the Bush administration for lax regulatory enforcement. People have been casting about for some way to compartmentalize this thing, some way to cast it as an anomaly, an "accident", the kind of screwup that can be meliorated or avoided in the future.

We are, however, drifting toward a whole different kind of place. Today BP is attempting the "top kill" maneuver - pumping mud into the well. If it doesn't work, well ... then what? Junk shot? Top hat? Loony stuff like nukes? Relief wells will take months to drill and no one's sure if they'll work to relieve pressure. It's entirely possible, even likely, that we're going to be stuck helplessly watching as this well spews oil into the Gulf for years. Even if the flow were stopped tomorrow, the damage to marshes, coral, and marine life is done. The Gulf of Mexico will become an ecological and economic dead zone. There's no real way to undo it, no matter who's in charge.

I'm curious to see how the public's mood shifts once it becomes clear that we are powerless in the face of this thing. What if there's just nothing we can do? That's not a feeling to which Americans are accustomed.

Once we know that accidents can be catastrophic and irreversible, it becomes clear that there is no margin of error. We're operating a brittle system, unable to contain failure and unable to recover from it. Consider how deepwater drilling will look in that new light.

The thing is, we're already operating in those circumstances in a thousand different ways - it's just that the risks and the damages tend to be distributed and obscured from view. They're not thrust in our face like they are in the Gulf. We don't get back the land we destroy by mining. We don't get back the species lost from deforestation and development. We don't get back islands lost to rising seas. We don't get back the coral lost to bleaching or the marine food chains lost to nitrogen runoff. Once we lose the climatic conditions in which our species evolved, we won't get them back either.

We're doing damage as big as the Gulf oil spill every day, and there's no fixing it. Humanity has grown in power, wealth, and appetite to the point that there is no more margin of error anywhere. We're on a knife's edge, facing the very real possibility that for our children, all the world may be one big Gulf of Mexico, inexorably and irreversibly deteriorating.

Perhaps if the public gets a clear taste of this, they'll step back and contemplate whether the kind of energy we use is really as "cheap" as it looks. Maybe they'll stop thinking about how to drill better and start thinking about how to avoid drilling altogether. Because some mistakes just can't be undone

Bill Totten

Friday, May 28, 2010

Out of Darkness

by James Howard Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(2005) (May 24 2010)

If the Devil created an anti-city, a place where people would feel least human, Atlanta would surely be that place - despite the prayerful babble of tongues emanating from the evangelical roller rinks at every freeway off-ramp. One might think: Los Angeles, but that city at least came up with the amenity of valet parking, mostly lacking in Atlanta, where the suffocating heat slows the journey of blood from heart to brain.

My homeys, the New Urbanists, held their annual meeting at the "downtown" Hilton there this past week - a most mysterious selection, perhaps due to an x-treme discount on room rates in a time of austerity. The New Urbanists first came together about twenty years ago as a campaign to reform the tragic fiasco of suburbia. By taking this on they were often labeled as enemies of the American Way Of Life and Christian Decency, but they are a valiant band. I'd guess that architects composed about two-thirds of the organization and the rest included developers, planning officials, a few college professors and journalists. They were all out of the mainstream, especially of architecture, whose stock-in-trade had become the emperors new clothes.

The basic idea behind the New Urbanism was that the quality and character of the places where we spend our lives matters, and that the surrender of the entire American landscape to Happy Motoring was an historic aberration that had to be corrected if the USA was going to continue as a viable project. Among other things, they noticed that if people live in places that aren't worth caring about, sooner or later they end up being a nation not worth defending - and this is on top of the daily personal punishments suffered by hundreds of millions of people dwelling in a geography of nowhere.

At the time they first got going, the idea of peak oil barely existed outside a small circle of geologists, so the battles were fought mostly on other grounds. They were up against a lot. The collective American identity was invested in the idea of the suburban utopia, and the sheer dollar investments in the infrastructure of it all - everything from the interstate highways to the housing subdivisions to the strip malls - was so massive that nobody wanted to think about changing it. What's more, a massive system had evolved for delivering what came to be labeled as suburban sprawl, especially the laws that regulated land-use, so that in most places in the USA it was illegal to build anything else but sprawl.

The New Urbanists were fiercely opposed, usually for stupid reasons by stupid people, but also by the mandarin architecture establishment, especially in the graduate schools, where mysticism supported a set of theological rackets in the service of celebrity cults divorced from the public nature of things that get built. In the local planning boards, the New Urbanists were accused of being communists; in the ivory towers they were accused of being slaves to worn-out traditions - like walking from home to work. They certainly proved one principle of the human condition: that even the best ideas will generate opposition.

The New Urbanists had to work within this system. They had to find allies among developers who aspired to create better places, and they had to get under the hood of regulatory system to rewrite the laws in thousands of municipalities. They got a lot of projects built, new neighborhoods and even whole new towns. Many of these places came out beautifully. Some of them were badly compromised in the fight to get them built. Some of them were rip-offs that amounted to little more than the usual suburban schlock with a little window-dressing.

It's a bitter irony that the most ambitious New Urbanist projects were made possible within the context of the housing bubble economy. For about a decade money seemed to grow on trees. Most of that money went into conventional suburban crapola and a small percentage of it went into New Urbanist projects, but when the bubble burst, it crushed all the players, regardless of the ultimate social value of what they produced.

I heard a lot of stories during the meeting in Atlanta last week but one really stood out. It was about the money and revealed a lot about what is going on in our banking system these days. A New Urbanist developer had gotten a small project going for a traditional neighborhood. Despite the global financial clusterfuck, the developer was able to meet the payments of his commercial loan. But the FDIC sent bank examiners around America and they told the small regional banks that if they had more than twenty percent of their loans in commercial real estate (CRE) they would be put out of business. The banks were ordered to reduce their loads of CRE by calling in the loans and liquidating the assets. Ironically, the banks only called in their "performing" loans, the ones that were being regularly paid off, because they were ignoring and even concealing the ones that weren't being paid.

The developer in question had his loan called in when the FDIC descended on his bank. He couldn't pay off the $3 million in one lump, of course. The FDIC's agents are going to seize and sell off his project if he can't get it refinanced in short order. He can't get it refinanced because there is now such a shortage of capital in the banking system that no one can get a loan for anything. Also, since it is now well-known that the bank failed, the vultures are circling above his project hoping to buy it for a discount, so even the few private investors who have money won't throw him a lifeline. By the way, the FDIC agents told him they are doing this because they now expect that virtually all commercial real estate loans in the USA will fail in the months ahead. Pretty scary story, huh? And he was one of the good guys.

I suppose it was a tragic thing that the New Urbanists made themselves hostage to the same banking system that was behind suburban sprawl. Apart from the personal stories of misfortune among them, the movement is still alive. In fact, they have emerged the victors in the long contest over how America will build itself, because it is now self-evident that suburban sprawl is an epic failure. Whether Americans like it or not, whether their identity is tied up in the suburban fantasy or not, we are faced with circumstances that now compel us to live differently.

Among other things, the most forward-looking leaders in the New Urbanist movement now recognize that we have to reorganize the landscape for local food production, because industrial agriculture will be one of the prime victims of our oil predicament. The successful places in the future will be places that have a meaningful relationship with growing food close to home. The crisis in agriculture is looming right now - with world grain reserves at their lowest level ever recorded in modern times - and when it really does hit, the harvestmen of famine and death will be in the front ranks of it.

This eighteenth Congress of the New Urbanism was held in the shadow of a banking system in extreme crisis and an epic ecological catastrophe brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. The three crisis of capital, energy, and global ecology will now determine what we do, not the polls or the marketing analyses or the whims of "consumers". The great achievement of the New Urbanists was not the projects they built during the final orgasm of the cheap energy orgy. It was the knowledge they retrieved from the dumpster of history. We really do know where to go from here. Whether the people of the USA have the will to take themselves there now is another issue.

Also in the background of this Congress was the bizarre organism of Atlanta, which represents in so many ways the behavior that can't continue in this country if we are going to remain civilized. A prankish destiny put us in the worst place at the worst time and the next time we meet America is going to be a different country.


A sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, will be published in September 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Press. The title is The Witch of Hebron.

For more about Mr Kunstler, see

Bill Totten

Tipping Point (Part Six)

Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production - Principal Mechanisms Driving Collapse

Posted by Gail the Actuary {a}

The Oil Drum (April 29 2010)

Recently, a 55 page paper called Tipping Point: Near-Term Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production {b} was published as the joint effort of two organizations: Feasta and The Risk/Resilience Network, with lead author David Korowicz. We have recently published several excerpts from that paper, which can be found at This final excerpt gives the author's view about the future.

8. Conclusion

This report has laid out why we may be entering a near-term period of profound and abrupt change. The temptation might be to ignore it, or to carry it awhile until some august personage assures and persuades us that such concerns are quite without foundation and that the experts are indeed in control. Or we might wonder why we should stand out from our social group, initiate some actions, and risk the ridicule of those whose opinion we value. There is an abundance of psychological literature exploring the diverse ways in which we as individuals and groups maintain cohesion and keep the frightening and uncomfortable at bay {67}. Yet in acknowledging our fears and anxieties we are being true to ourselves. Fear evolved to warn us that action must be taken, and for many, action is the means by which we surmount our fears.

There is much we can do. Not to prevent or defer a collapse - rather to prepare to some degree ourselves and communities for some of its impacts. For example, despite the limitations of lock-in, planning for food insecurity is something in which everyone, from children to governments, has a role to play. Other jobs, from monetary system collapse and reserve communication systems planning are more specialised, but in which we all have an interest in understanding. And the reality is that this is the most important, meaningful, and potentially liberating work that we have ever had to do, and it must be done right now. Our current employment status is immaterial, employed or unemployed, we can begin from where we are.

Part of the preparation is in the acknowledgement of our predicament, that we recognise it when we see it. That as systems fail, we spend our efforts on positive change and adaption, rather than finding scapegoats or letting anger and loss drive the cannibalisation of our social fabric. Putting a wise step forward increases the chance that the next step will be wise; putting the foolish foot forward increases the chance that the next step will be foolish, or even initiates an evolving spiral of social breakdown. By acknowledging the potential stresses and the demons in our nature, we can begin to protect ourselves from our own worst enemy.

What does seem clear is that those who, through fear or avarice, try and insulate themselves from the impacts by disproportionate hoarding or land grabs for example, will imperil not only their community's security and wellbeing, but their own. This will be a time when we really will need the cooperation and support of others, and where the idea of autonomous security through wealth and the market system will be revealed as a transient illusion.

What is important is wisdom and speed. Our current political and social processes have not evolved to take quick and decisive action, in developed democracies. Instead, they have evolved to manage competing interests for the spoils of growth, and the maintenance of general stability. Constructive action must be taken at the limits of the possible, and this will require individual courage and the support of those who recognise the precarious status quo.

Finally, this is a personal story. It will no doubt be a difficult time, and horrific for some. We are likely to see a major increase in mortality. But it will also be a time when many people will find a liberation in new social and personal roles; in the new friends and connections they make; in the skills and pastimes acquired; in their ability to contribute to other's welfare; in their freedom from the subtle corrosion of positional consumption; and in the pleasures gained from contributing to the most crucial of shared endeavours.




{67} Cleary, S and Malleret, T. (2007) Global Risk: Business Success in Turbulent Times. Palgrave Macmillan. Introductory chapters review cognitive biases.

Bill Totten

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Garlic, Chainsaws, and Victory Gardens

The Archdruid Report (May 19 2010)

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

The uncontrolled simplification of a complex system is rarely a welcome event for those people whose lives depend on the system in question. That's one way to summarize the impact of the waves of trouble rolling up against the sand castles we are pleased to call the world's modern industrial nations. Exactly how the interaction between sand and tide will work out is anyone's guess at this point; the forces that undergird that collision have filled the pages of this blog for a year and a half now; here, and for the next few posts, I want to talk a bit about what can be done to deal with the consequences.

That requires, first of all, recognizing what can't be done. Plenty of people have argued that the only valid response to the rising spiral of crisis faced by industrial civilization is to build a completely new civilization from the ground up on more idealistic lines. Even if that latter phrase wasn't a guarantee of disaster - if there's one lesson history teaches, it's that human societies are organic growths, and trying to invent one to fit some abstract idea of goodness is as foredoomed as trying to make an ecosystem do what human beings want - we no longer have time for grand schemes of that sort. To shift metaphors, when your ship has already hit the iceberg and the water's coming in, it's a bit too late to suggest that it should be rebuilt from the keel up according to some new scheme of naval engineering.

An even larger number of people have argued with equal zeal that the only valid response to the predicament of our time is to save the existing order of things, with whatever modest improvements the person in question happens to fancy, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. They might be right, too, if saving the existing order of things was possible, but it's not. A global civilization that is utterly dependent for its survival on ever-expanding supplies of cheap abundant energy and a stable planetary biosphere is simply not going to make it in a world of ever- contracting supplies of scarce and expensive energy and a planetary biosphere that the civilization's own activities are pushing into radical instability. Again, when your ship has already hit the iceberg and the water's coming in, it's not helpful to insist that the only option is to keep steaming toward a distant port.

What that leaves, to borrow a useful term from one of the most insightful books of the last round of energy crises, is muddling through. Warren Johnson's Muddling Toward Frugality (1978) has fallen into the limbo our cultural memory reserves for failed prophecies; neither he nor, to be fair to him, anybody else in the sustainability movement of the Seventies had any idea that the collective response of most industrial nations to the approach of the limits to growth would turn out to be a thirty-year vacation from sanity in which short-term political gimmicks and the wildly extravagant drawdown of irreplaceable resources would be widely mistaken for permanent solutions.

That put paid to Johnson's hope that simple, day by day adjustments to dwindling energy and resource supplies would cushion the transition from an economy of abundance to one of frugality. His strategy, though, still has some things going for it that no other available approach can match: It can still be applied this late in the game; if it's done with enough enthusiasm or desperation, and with a clear sense of the nature of our predicament, it could still get a fair number of us through the mess ahead; and it certainly offers better odds than sitting on our hands and waiting for the ship to sink, which under one pretense or another is the other option open to us right now.

A strategy of muddling doesn't lend itself to nice neat checklists of what to do and what to try, and so I won't presume to offer a step-by-step plan. Still, showing one way to muddle, or to begin muddling, and outlining some of the implications of that choice, can bridge the gap between abstraction and action, and suggest ways that those who are about to muddle might approach the task - and of course there's always the chance that the example might be applicable to some of the people who read it. With this in mind, I want to talk about victory gardens.

The victory garden as a social response to crisis was an invention of the twentieth century. Much before then, it would have been a waste of time to encourage civilians in time of war to dig up their back yards and put in vegetable gardens, because nearly everybody who had a back yard already had a kitchen garden in it. That was originally why houses had back yards; the household economy, which produced much of the goods and services used by people in pre-petroleum Europe and America, didn't stop at the four walls of a house; garden beds, cold frames, and henhouses in urban back yards kept pantries full, while no self-respecting farm wife would have done without the vegetable garden out back and the dozen or so fruit trees close by the farmhouse.

Those useful habits only went into decline when rail transportation and the commercialization of urban food supplies gave birth to the modern city in the course of the nineteenth century. When 1914 came around and Europe blundered into the carnage of the First World War, the entire system had to be reinvented from scratch in many urban areas, since the transport networks that brought fresh food to the cities in peacetime had other things to do, and importing food from overseas became problematic for all the combatants in a time of naval blockades and unrestricted submarine warfare. The lessons learned from that experience became a standard part of military planning thereafter, and when the Second World War came, well- organized victory garden programs shifted into high gear, helping to take the hard edges off food rationing. It's a measure of their success that despite the massive mismatch between Britain's wartime population and its capacity to grow food, and the equally massive challenge of getting food imports through a gauntlet of U-boats, food shortages in Britain never reached the level of actual famine.

In the Seventies, in turn, the same thing happened on a smaller scale without government action; all over the industrial world, people who were worried about the future started digging victory gardens in their back yards, and books offering advice on backyard gardening became steady sellers. (Some of those are still in print today.) These days, sales figures in the home garden industry reliably jolt upwards whenever the economy turns south or something else sends fears about the future upwards; for many people, planting a victory garden has become a nearly instinctive response to troubled times.

It's fashionable in some circles to dismiss this sort of thing as an irrelevance, but such analyses miss the point of the phenomenon. The reason that the victory garden has become a fixture of our collective response to trouble is that it engages one of the core features of the predicament individuals and families face in the twilight of the industrial age, the disconnection of the money economy from the actual production of goods and services - in the terms we've used here repeatedly, the gap between the tertiary economy on the one hand, and the primary and secondary economies on the other.

Right now, the current theoretical value of all the paper wealth in the world - counting everything from dollar bills in wallets to derivatives of derivatives of derivatives of fraudulent mortgage loans in bank vaults - is several orders of magnitude greater than the current value of all the actual goods and services in the world. Almost all of that paper wealth consists of debt in one form or another, and the mismatch between the scale of the debt and the much smaller scale of the global economy's assets means exactly the same thing that the same mismatch would mean to a household: imminent bankruptcy. That can take place in two ways - either most of the debt will lose all its value by way of default, or all of the debt will lose most of its value by way of hyperinflation - or, more likely, by a ragged combination of the two, affecting different regions and economic sectors at different times.

What that implies for the not too distant future is that any economic activity that depends on money will face drastic uncertainties, instabilities, and risks. People use money because it gives them a way to exchange their labor for goods and services, and because it allows them to store value in a relatively stable and secure form. Both these, in turn, depend on the assumption that a dollar has the same value as any other dollar, and will have roughly the same value tomorrow that it does today.

The mismatch between money and the rest of economic life throws all these assumptions into question. Right now there are a great many dollars in the global economy that are no longer worth the same as any other dollar. Consider the trillions of dollars' worth of essentially worthless real estate loans on the balance sheets of banks around the world. Governments allow banks to treat these as assets, but unless governments agree to take them, they can't be exchanged for anything else, because nobody in his right mind would buy them for more than a tiny fraction of their theoretical value. Those dollars have the same sort of weird half-existence that horror fiction assigns to zombies and vampires; they're undead money, lurking in the shadowy crypts of Goldman Sachs like so many brides of Dracula, because the broad daylight of the market would kill them at once.

It's been popular for some years, since the sheer amount of undead money stalking the midnight streets of the world's financial centers became impossible to ignore, to suggest that the entire system will come to a messy end soon in some fiscal equivalent of a zombie apocalypse movie. Still, the world's governments are doing everything in their not inconsiderable power to keep that from happening. Letting banks meet capital requirements with technically worthless securities is only one of the maneuvers that government regulators around the world allow without blinking. Driving this spectacular lapse of fiscal probity, of course, is the awkward fact that governments - to say nothing of large majorities of the voters who elect them - have been propping up budgets for years with their own zombie hordes of undead money.

Underlying this awkward fact is the reality that the only response to the current economic crisis most governments can imagine involves churning out yet more undead money, in the form of an almost unimaginable torrent of debt; the only response most voters can imagine, in turn, involves finding yet more ways to spend more money than they happen to earn. So we're all in this together; everybody insists that the walking corpses in the basement are fine upstanding citizens, and we all pretend not to notice that more and more people are having their necks bitten or their brains devoured.

As long as most people continue to play along, it's entirely possible that things could stumble along this way for quite a while, with stock market crashes, sovereign debt crises, and corporate bankruptcies quickly covered up by further outpourings of unpayable debt. The problem for individuals and families, though, is that all this makes money increasingly difficult to use as a medium of exchange or a store of wealth. If hyperinflation turns out to be the mode of fiscal implosion du jour, it becomes annoying to have to sprint to the grocery store with your paycheck before the price of milk rises above $1 million a gallon; if we get deflationary contraction instead, business failures and plummeting wages make getting any paycheck at all increasingly challenging; in either case your pension, your savings, and the money you pour down the rathole of health insurance are as good as lost.

This is where victory gardens come in, because the value you get from a backyard garden differs from the value you get from your job or your savings in a crucial way: money doesn't mediate between your labor and the results. If you save your own seeds, use your own muscles, and fertilize the soil with compost you make from kitchen and garden waste - and many gardeners do these things, of course - the only money your gardening requires of you is whatever you spend on beer after a hard day's work. The vegetables that help feed your family are produced by the primary economy of sun and soil and the secondary economy of sweat; the tertiary economy has been cut out of the loop.

Now it will doubtless be objected that nobody can grow all the food for a family in an ordinary back yard, so the rest of the food remains hostage to the tertiary economy. This is more or less true, but it's less important than it looks. Even in a really thumping depression, very few people have no access to money at all; the problem is much more often one of not having enough money to get everything you need by way of the tertiary economy. An effective response usually involves putting those things that can be done without money outside the reach of the tertiary economy, and prioritizing whatever money can be had for those uses that require it.

You're not likely to be able to grow field crops in your back yard, for example, but grains, dried beans, and the like can be bought in bulk very cheaply. What can't be bought cheaply, and in a time of financial chaos may not be for sale at all, are exactly the things you can most effectively grow in a backyard garden, the vegetables, vine and shrub fruits, eggs, chicken and rabbit meat, and the like that provide the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you can't get from fifty pound sacks of rice and beans. Those are the sorts of things people a century and a half ago produced in their kitchen gardens, along with medicinal herbs to treat illnesses and maybe a few dye plants for homespun fabric; those are the sorts of things that make sense to grow at home in a world where the economy won't support the kind of abundance most people in the industrial world take for granted today.

It will also doubtless be objected that even if you reduce the amount of money you need for food, you still need money for other things, and so a victory garden isn't an answer. This is true enough, if your definition of an answer requires that it simultaneously solves every aspect of the mess in which the predicament of industrial society has landed us. Still, one of the key points I've tried to make in this blog is that waiting for the one perfect answer to come around is a refined version of doing nothing while the water rises. Muddling requires many small adjustments rather than one grand plan: planting a victory garden in the back yard is one adjustment to the impact of a dysfunctional money economy on the far from minor issue of getting food on the table; other impacts will require other adjustments.

A third objection I expect to hear that not everybody can plant a victory garden in the back yard. A good many people don't have back yards these days, and some of those who do are forbidden by restrictive covenants from using their yards as anything but props for their home's largely imaginary resale value. (Will someone please explain to me why so many Americans, who claim to value freedom, willingly submit to the petty tyranny of planned developments and neighborhood associations? Brezhnev's Russia placed fewer restrictions on people's choices than many neighborhood covenants do.) The crucial point here is that a victory garden is simply an example of the way that people have muddled through hard times in the past, and might well muddle through the impending round of hard times in the future. If you can't grow a garden in your backyard, see if there's a neighborhood P-Patch program that will let [you] garden somewhere else, or look for something else that will let you meet some of your own needs with your own labor without letting money get in the way.

That latter, of course, is the central point of this example. At a time when the tertiary economy is undergoing the first stages of an uncontrolled and challenging simplification, if you can disconnect something you need from the tertiary economy, you've insulated a part of your life from at least some of the impacts of the chaotic resolution of the mismatch between limitless paper wealth and the limited real wealth available to our species on this very finite planet. What garlic is to vampires and a well-fueled chainsaw is to zombies, being able to do things yourself, with the skills and resources you have on hand, is to the undead money lurching en masse through today's economy; next week, we'll replace the garlic with a mallet and a stake.


John Michael Greer, The Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), has been active in the alternative spirituality movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of more than twenty books, including The Druidry Handbook (Weiser, 2006) and The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (New Society, 2008). He lives in Cumberland, Maryland.

Bill Totten

The Vanishing Liberal

How the left learned to be helpless

by Kevin Baker

Harper's Magazine Essay (April 2010)

On the first day of December last year, Barack Obama stood before the assembled Corps of Cadets at West Point and announced his decision to send another 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan. The president's nationally televised address was, in many ways, the most honest speech made to the American people by their leader in a generation. Obama conceded that our client state in Afghanistan "has been hampered by corruption" and "has moved backwards", He told us he had rejected "a more dramatic and open-ended escalation" of the war because that would require setting "goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests", He called on the nation to restore "the connection between our national security and our economy", since "our prosperity provides a foundation for our power", which means therefore that "our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended - because the nation that I am most interested in building is our own".

It was as if the president were walking back half a century of American overreach and hubris in foreign affairs, back past John F Kennedy's inaugural declaration that the United States would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty". Now Obama was finally conceding that there were limits. It was an argument in the very best tradition of American democracy: educational, unshirking, and honest; grounded in history; cognizant of physical realities and limitations but no less cognizant of humane and democratic principles. Had Obama delivered these words soon after he took office, as a prologue to making a major change in our foreign and military policies, they would have justified every hope his liberal supporters had for him.

Instead, of course, these words were merely a coda, a belated attempt to reassure us that the policy of escalation Obama had just announced was nothing of the sort. The decision stood: 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. After stating the case for standing down in the most deliberate, accurate, and insightful words possible, our president went ahead and did the wrong thing anyway.

How could this be? It was the question that Obama's most fervent supporters had been asking themselves for months, as their candidate discarded almost every vision of a new America, a new world, that he had described during his campaign. By the time of his West Point speech, health-care "reform" had already been transformed into yet another scheme to transfer wealth to the richest corporate interests in the country. The stimulus program had been botched, the promised money delayed and diverted from badly needed public projects into unhelpful tax cuts. The banks had been bailed out but not the people, and any significant proposals for repairing our infrastructure, addressing climate change, re-regulating the financial markets, or rebuilding New Orleans were generally acknowledged to be dead letters.

Now, with the president's decision on Afghanistan, our foreign policy settled back into its familiar pattern of endless war for unknown purposes. To people who had been clamoring for real change in how we work and consume, how we live in the world and with one another, this retreat to the failed policies of the recent past was stunning. No other president in our history had so thoroughly spurned his political base in so short a time.

To understand how this could have happened, it is instructive to pay less attention to what Obama said in his West Point speech and more to where he said it. That is, in front of the designated heirs to an officer class that in recent years has accrued unprecedented influence over policies once thought to be the exclusive domain of elected officials. Obama's choice of venue provided the perhaps-too-liberal president a reassuringly martial podium, and in doing so it assured the Pentagon of an outcome its officers had in good part already determined by means of their own scandalously insubordinate intelligence leaks, and a recasting of history that assigned themselves sole credit for whatever "victory" was won in Iraq.

The president had undertaken a similar act of obeisance a few months earlier on Wall Street, where he had gone to plead for the cooperation of the financial sector and was faced with an even less enthusiastic audience of stone-faced officers. Two weeks after the West Point speech, the heads of some of the largest bailed-out banks failed even to show up for what was billed as an important White House conference on loosening lending restrictions and creating jobs, pleading "inclement weather". And all the while, Republicans were stonewalling the health-care bill that was meant to be the cornerstone of Obama's legacy.

Despite such receptions, the president continues to press for "bipartisanship" and elite consensus. One of the most charismatic politicians of his time, a man who was able to raise the most money and draw the biggest crowds in American political history has apparently decided that his new job is to fluff up the generals and bankers and politicians who not very long ago were in panicked disarray. Armchair psychologists from the Maureen Dowd school of political commentary like to analyze this conversion in terms of the elusive personality of Obama himself. Others prefer to dwell on the surprising ineptitude of his administration. And some simply accept his about-face in terms of the political exigencies of an essentially conservative nation, concluding wistfully that Obama is confronted by so many barriers to change - Republican obstructionism, the treachery of this or that Democratic senator, the nature of the Constitution itself - that the country is now ungovernable.

All of which may be true. But it only skims the surface of a greater tidal shift, one that has little to do with Obama himself and in fact has inundated the whole of our democratic process. This shift, which is subtle and has been many years in the making, might best be understood by considering a design underlying many of the interrogation techniques we employ at the (still-unclosed) prison at Guantanamo or at the black sites we still maintain, wherever they are. That is, bringing about the state known as learned helplessness.

The expression dates from a famous set of experiments by Martin Seligman some forty years ago, in which he found that dogs exposed to repeated and seemingly random electric shocks eventually stopped trying to escape those shocks, even when they could very easily do so. This insight gave rise to "no touch" torture, pioneered in large part by the CIA, whose efforts to "break" prisoners involved all manner of techniques, from the unsavory to the absurd, such as depriving prisoners of sleep for weeks on end, bombarding them with ear-splitting noises, exposing them to extreme heat and cold, shackling them in "stress positions", tying bras to their heads, making them bark like dogs, and waterboarding them. There is no evidence that such practices enhance the odds that prisoners will provide more useful information to interrogators. It is well established, though, that they will make prisoners docile, and so the techniques remain popular.

For decades now, as our public discourse in general has become more scattered, random, and irrational, Republicans - funded by corporate and other elites in the private sector - have stunned Democrats with absurdist attacks that have proved to be effective at garnering votes and, more important in the long term, at hampering Democrats even when they hold the majority. Democrats have been reduced to a state of psychological helplessness, one in which any political obstacles - ranging from the prevarications of stalking horses like Senators Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, to the plaintive cries of the tea-baggers out in the streets, to the sterner demands of the joint Chiefs of Staff or Big Pharma - are transformed into insurmountable organic obstacles.

We have learned to be helpless. And in this state of political depression, it no longer matters how many elections liberals win for the Democrats, or how badly Republican, right-wing policies fail or how much damage they do to the country or the world. There is simply no way to do anything differently.

Such hapless fatalism is, of course, in direct opposition to every tenet of American liberalism, which is rooted in the idea that human agency is still possible in the modern world - that democratic action can make a difference when ranged against vast, impersonal forces and supposedly immutable "laws" of human society. Liberalism's antecedents lie in one nineteenth-century rebellion after another - against laissez-faire capitalism, patriarchy, slavery, Social Darwinism, and other efforts to transmute political dispositions into irrefutable "social science". American voters of the time were regularly assured by authoritative voices that "hard money" was an indispensable economic principle; that women, people of color, and many varieties of European immigrant were inherently inferior; that any attempts to regulate the "natural" workings of the economy, even private charity, would thwart human progress because they interfered with the culling of those who, in Herbert Spencer's description, were not "sufficiently complete to live".

Crusades against these self-serving philosophies of the wealthy and the powerful were waged in a series of determined grassroots movements - from abolition, universal suffrage, and women's rights to the first revolts of working men and women in the cities and the mills - that were the essence of the democratic idea. They presumed that ordinary people, learning from their own experiences, could challenge and overcome the superstitions powerful elites used to oppress them. And in so struggling, they would free not only themselves but many others, so that they, too, could contribute to the progress of the human enterprise.

The first attempt to fashion this idea of agency into an enduring, broad-based political movement was Populism, which began in the 1870s as an agrarian uprising. American farmers, who still made up the majority of the population, were confronted with a monetary system that depressed crop prices and gave financiers a near monopoly on capital. Many families were forced deeper into debt with every harvest, even as unchecked financial speculation regularly set off Wall Street "panics" followed by devastating depressions lasting anywhere from several months to several years.

The farmers had come to view both major parties as hopelessly unresponsive. Elections tended to be colorful festivals, often decided on the basis of personality or gaffes endlessly harped on in the outrageous, highly partisan media of the day. It was the time of the "Mugwumps" and "the Plumed Knight"; "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion", "Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa? Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha!", and "James G Blaine, the Continental Liar from the State of Maine" - phrases that mean as much to us today as "Borking", "I did not have sexual relations with that woman", and "swift-boating" will to Americans a century from now.

Candidates appealed to voters mostly by appealing to their ethnic and social identities, "waving the bloody shirt" to remind their audiences of the treasonable crimes the other side had committed during the bitter culture wars of the Sixties - the 1860s, that is. No matter who won, the local and federal governments were understood - with good reason - to be the wholly owned creatures of corporate entities whose enormous wealth dwarfed that of the governments themselves. When offices changed hands, the new group of political professionals and their sponsors were the only people likely to benefit. Any and all appeals to the court system were useless. Just thirty years after it had supported a federal income tax to fund the Civil War, the US Supreme Court declared the very practice unconstitutional, an "assault upon capital" and the start of "a war of the poor against the rich". In 1886, the Court wielded the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the rights of freed slaves, as a shield against the regulation of big business, ruling that corporations were now somehow the same as people.

But the farmers had not yet learned that they were helpless in the face of such corruption. In September of 1877, a small group of men met at a farmhouse in Lampasas County, in the heart of Texas. They called themselves the Knights of Reliance, and though that name was soon changed to the Southern Alliance, their original appellation reflected their determination to rely on themselves and no one else to alter their situation. By 1890, they were the National Farmers Alliance, with some 500,000 members in the South and another 100,000 in Kansas alone. Gathered under the banner of the People's Party, and inviting input from everywhere, the Populists quickly assembled a host of solutions and formulated ways to get them done - perhaps the most imaginative and genuinely grassroots political movement in American history.

The leaders of the People's Party organized a circuit of thousands of farmer-lecturers who spoke to audiences about problems they knew, in terms they understood. The Populists had ideas for dealing with every obstacle - many of them amazingly sophisticated and effective. In the halls of the nation's legislatures, they demanded the public ownership of railroad, telegraph, and telephone infrastructure; a graduated income tax; the direct election of US senators; recall provisions; the secret ballot; laws to allow labor unions to organize; an expanded money supply; and a "sub-treasury" system of storing crops so that farmers could not only wait for the most favorable conditions before putting their goods on the market but in the meantime could draw credit from that reserve rather than from Wall Street.

All of these ideas and more were promulgated in the Populist lectures, which were attended by as many as two million people in forty-three states. These meetings provided some of the most poignant moments ever recorded of American democracy in action: Wagon trains six miles long heading out to the prairie to listen to brass bands and lectures on currency reform. Fourth of July "Alliance Day" rallies drawing as many as 20,000 people to learn about the "money trust" and the gold standard. Suppers, box socials, and sing-alongs, all dedicated to providing a useful airing of complicated political ideas that might improve the life of every participant. And when their demands and petitions were not enough to budge the leaders of the major parties, the Populists went into electoral politics.

Despite widespread and often illegal voter suppression by the major parties and a less-than-enthralling candidate (the largely forgotten James Weaver), the Populists captured four states outright and more than eight percent of the overall presidential vote in 1892. Over the next four years, the People's Party regularly drew 25 percent to 45 percent of the vote in some twenty states. The Populists were serious about taking power. In the South, they crossed the great racial divide to make alliances with black farmers. And when electoral fraud threatened to rob them of the State House of Representatives in Kansas, they briefly took control of that chamber by force of arms.

The ineluctable problem the Populists faced, though, was that they represented a class in steady decline. Theirs was at heart a nostalgic movement, trying to revitalize a receding agrarian order through radical new methods. Despite their support for unions, they had trouble making any inroads in the fast-growing cities, which they distrusted in the first place. Amid their frustration, some retreated into purest fantasy (Congressman Ignatius Donnelly, for one, was an Atlantis enthusiast), while some gave themselves over to paranoia about immigrants and about Jews on Wall Street, thereby tainting the entire movement. In the South, the Populists' occasional interracial alliances provided an excuse for white supremacists to wage a campaign of mass violence and electoral fraud against them.

Most of the movement was lured into the Democratic Party by William Jennings Bryan in 1896. The Populists had seriously considered nominating the socialist labor leader Eugene Debs as their candidate for president, which might have cemented an alliance between workers and farmers and dramatically altered the course of American history. But Bryan was young (thirty-six) and charismatic, and he had electrified the farmers with his "Cross of Gold" speech, in which he advocated the coinage of silver to increase the money supply and solve the farmers' credit problems. The Populists knew their failure to throw in with the Democrats would have meant an immediate victory for a thoroughly corporatized Republican Party, and so they relented. As it happened, Bryan lost by a narrow margin, 51 percent to 47 percent, despite an overwhelming Republican advantage in money, and the People's Party dissolved in the wake of the election. The Populists had cracked open the American political system for participatory democracy. But they had also begun to learn about the limits of that system.

The Republicans themselves, even in victory, could not ignore the growing demand for government accountability. The standard of reform was taken up by the Progressives, almost all of whom were current or former GOP members. The Progressives were far more in step with their times. They tended to be prosperous citizens of towns and cities. For a soapbox, they offered not a formal lecture circuit but a newsstand full of stylish magazines printing muckraking articles with such catchy titles as "The Treason of the Senate", "The Shame of the Cities", and "The History of the Standard Oil Company". They were savvy enough to get some of the Populists' best ideas passed, and they contributed a few of their own, including potent antitrust laws; the regulation and public ownership of utilities and mass-transit systems; clean-food, -drug, and -water regulations; nature conservation; and a larger civil service.

The Progressives rebutted the past century's conservative "social science" - which had proposed another kind of helplessness, in the guise of biological destiny - with the new philosophy of pragmatism, then being espoused by the likes of John Dewey and William James. The pragmatists rejected notions of destiny and refused to take anything on faith. They insisted on testing assumptions and preferred the authority of statistics and experience to the claims of ideology. They believed fervently in education, in self-improvement, in man's ability to alter his environment, and in the necessity for government to level the playing field and provide a safety net. Whereas the Populists had tried to reform a dying social order by democratizing it, the Progressives would invigorate the new world of the cities and the suburbs by giving its citizens, many of them immigrants, the tools to better themselves - to tap the immense human potential that was everywhere amid that astonishing collection of strivers, tinkerers, and questioners known as the American people.

Once in office, though, the Progressives often acted as elitists, trying to impose their own ideals of behavior on the people they ruled. Like the Populists, they were predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestants who needed to win the support of a population that was increasingly made up of new Catholic and Jewish immigrants. Time after time, Progressive coalitions overcame the formidable power of the urban, usually Democratic machines, winning elections when municipal corruption got out of hand - only to perform what that old Tammany sachem George Washington Plunkitt called "the sky-rocket act" and plummet back to earth. Rather than concentrate on the material needs of the urban masses, Progressive reformers wasted their mandates on ancillary or irrelevant issues, such as halting purely political appointments, balancing municipal budgets, and "sabbatarianism" - making sure that theaters and saloons were shuttered on Sunday, the one day most working people had to enjoy any such form of recreation. Again and again, Progressives went down to resounding defeats after single terms.

By the 1920s, "Progressive" was an almost meaningless term, much as it is today. Conservative politicians, including Calvin Coolidge, were happy to appropriate the label, even as corporations snapped up progressive-sounding ideas and terms - much as they attach themselves to "green" ideas and terminology today - creating such ostensibly liberal institutions as "company unions". Worst of all for the Progressives, many of them had lined up behind the most egregiously awful, imposed idea of their time: Prohibition. Swayed by health statistics, and the thought of all the money the poor would save by not indulging, even such laudable public servants as the community activist Jane Addams and the conservationist Gifford Pinchot found themselves joining an unfortunate assemblage of interest groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, in support of the war on liquor.

Prohibition was the first great issue on which liberal elites would display what was to become their greatest vulnerability: letting the reforming impulse slide over into unrealistic plans to reshape not just society but human nature, and refusing to acknowledge the particular class interests that produced that impulse. Such Progressive tendencies begot deadly political caricatures that would be flung at all liberals - quiche eaters, limousine liberals, bobos, et cetera.

As is usually the case, it was the liberals themselves who cleaned up the mess, undoing Prohibition in 1933. And under the immense pressure of the Great Depression, it was liberalism as a whole that came into its own, fusing reformist impulses into a single movement grounded in practical, urgent reforms. The liberals of the New Deal implemented the nation's Social Security system, pushed through a steeply graduated income tax, and provided immediate relief that kept people eating and working, in their jobs and on their farms. They also made fundamental changes in the nation's power relationships and reversed disastrous economic policies. Finally subsidizing crop prices as the Populists had agitated for, they halted, then healed, the catastrophic climate change of their time - the soil damage that had reduced the Dust Bowl to near desert and sent enormous clouds of dirt swirling across the country and out to the Atlantic. With the Tennessee Valley Authority and the creation of other public power authorities, they provided consumers throughout the South and West with a "public option" that checked private utility costs and provided millions of people with electricity. They extended public infrastructure. They built new dams, bridges, schools, hospitals, even entire towns.

Beyond all of this, however, what the New Deal did was to liberate whole new classes of the American people and bring them into the democratic process. The support of government liberals for labor was critical to creating the modern union movement and giving millions of Americans some control over their working conditions. Farmers, too, got a say in what they would grow, and when. Urban reform movements had backing from Washington. For the first time, a liberal coalition in New York was able to last for more than one term. Its leader, Fiorello La Guardia, might be considered the embodiment of the liberal ideal: uncouth, urban, and from the streets; Protestant and Catholic and Jewish in background and belief; uncompromisingly honest and dedicated to good government and willing and able to do things that improved the day-to-day existence of working and poor people.

There was no longer an impregnable upper class in the United States; the path to improvement was now open to all. That is to say, everything that might have been granted before as a privilege - by the city political machines, by wealthy philanthropists, or by the noblesse oblige of the old Wasp order - was now available as a right.

For a generation, liberals learned from their successes. In gaining control of the federal government at nearly every level, liberalism became at times an almost perfect perpetual-motion machine for the reformist impulse. It is stunning, for instance, to recall how popular, crusading books of the 1960s were debated and translated into congressional hearings and then into effective government programs, whether they concerned poverty (as did Michael Harrington's The Other America, 1962), environmental degradation (Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, 1962), or consumer safety (Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed, 1965). Grassroots citizen movements such as the campaign to end atmospheric nuclear testing received almost instant attention from the Kennedy Administration, which then concluded a test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Labor leaders were regularly invited to the White House and to political conventions, where they served as major power brokers.

This period marked, in many ways, the apex of the open society. Thanks to the new pressures of the Cold War, a highly fluid party structure in which both of the major parties now had liberal and conservative wings, and the practical political skills of Lyndon Johnson (who grew up not far from Lampasas), a staggering variety of reforms was passed. Programs such as Medicare significantly reduced poverty, increases in financial aid made college available to many American families, and an array of environmental regulations salvaged our water and air quality. Liberals went to the courts - which were now on their side - to guarantee defendants a lawyer, pull down censorship laws, and establish "one man, one vote" as the law of the land. In Congress, in the White House, and in the streets, liberals got behind the next great wave of liberation movements, ending almost all legal discrimination against women and ethnic minorities and helping gay Americans out of the closet.

But with such success came, inevitably, corruption and reaction. The "Great Society", Lyndon Johnson insisted, the very first time he used the term in public, "is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor." Yet no society can go on ceaselessly challenging itself, any more than it can "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship". Protestors became radicalized beyond their ability to be accommodated or appeased by the state. Unions became complacent and (though this was grossly overstated) corrupt. Above all, liberal constituencies began to resent solutions imposed by courts or bureaucrats, even when they provided necessary programs or broke societal logjams. These conflicts paralyzed the Democratic leadership and fueled the suspicion - growing even within the liberal base - that liberalism itself was helpless.

As the New Deal coalition began to unravel, another political movement was growing in force, one that, in its appropriation and inversion of Populist rhetoric, themes, and methods, is best described as counter-Populism. The father of modern counter-Populism was George Wallace, who over the course of four presidential campaigns perfected the language to cloak his racial appeals in the guise of anxiety over rising drug use, crime, sexual and gender liberation, urban decay, and societal disorder; who spoke to the growing fear that the world was beyond the control of working people, or at least white working people. It was Wallace who delighted in exposing the hypocrisy of elite liberals and raised the question of why wealthy Northerners should trouble themselves over the rights of black people in the South. His counter-Populism harked back to a mythologized past when the social order was firmly authoritarian.

Wallace's South was whole and complete, disturbed only by the attempts of mysterious, "pointy-headed bureaucrats" from Washington to stir things up. Similarly, his working-class followers were also whole and complete. There was no need for self-improvement, or to acknowledge the intrinsic problems of the world and devise ways to fix them. Instead, human agency consisted in blue-collar whites giving their votes to Wallace, so that he could make all the bad things go away. Ironically, his strategy was such that he even ended up suppressing violent resistance in Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement, using the state police apparatus to help root out some of the most psychopathic resisters to integration. Popular protest of any type was to be channeled exclusively into his own political campaigns.

The Republican Party got the message. The GOP's move to the right was not simply one of racial demographics, the much-vaunted "Southern strategy"; it was, as well, a notable change of rhetoric and of posture. Conservatives would abandon the discredited principles to which they had clung for decades - the eternal verities of hard money, balanced budgets, classical economics, and an elitist social order - in favor of a corporatist economics complete with whatever deficit-busting state subsidies were necessary, fundamentalist "low-church" religion, and the idolization of the white working class. It was a new variation on counter-Populism: voters would be courted with continual praise for their ethnic and cultural superiority while a large and intrusive state was turned over solely to the ends of corporate elites, thereby ensuring a steady flood of campaign money.

Republicans had considerable success with such appeals, but they got their biggest boost from what should have been a tangential issue when the Democrats managed to bog themselves down in Vietnam. This was the ultimate Progressive example of listening to impractical theorists and imposing a solution that was workable only in theory. Somehow, even as the Nixon Administration continued to bungle the war, it seemed to prove everything that the right was saying about liberals in every sphere. The Vietnam quagmire split the old liberal coalition decisively, betrayed the trust of many patriotic Americans who had been assured of both the war's necessity and its viability, and sent the economy into a brief but unsettling tailspin.

And yet, bad as it was, the debacle in Vietnam discredited the Pentagon and Cold War hawks as much as it did Washington liberals. The backlash, as with that over civil rights and the other liberation movements, was severe but short-lived, and when it was over the right still seemed to be at a cultural standstill. Women were not going back to the kitchen, gays were not going back to the closet, black people were not going back to the back of the bus. Throughout the South, interracial coalitions elected moderately liberal Democrats to state and city governments in the middle and late 1970s. Liberal philosophies, liberal convictions, and liberal standards of civil society were now predominant and often unassailable. Even the mightiest icons of the right wing, such as Governor Ronald Reagan in California, did not seriously challenge the basic assumptions of the liberal state. Six years after his last presidential campaign, George Wallace, again running for governor, was publicly apologizing for his racial demagoguery and appealing to black voters. When Richard Nixon admitted about the same time that "we are all Keynesians now", it could as easily have been said that "we are all liberals now".

Once the United States regained its footing at the close of the Vietnam War, and looked back on all the progress that one wave of determined reform movements after another had brought over the past hundred years, the next question should have been: To what new heights will we how ascend? Even if decades of political dominance had turned some liberal professionals and bureaucrats toward reaction and obfuscation, and even if some liberal interest groups were deeply suspicious of others, the fact remained that the power of the state could still serve as an invaluable tool in bolstering populist movements and passing critical legislation.

The trouble was that - much as the Populists had been folded into the Democratic Party under William Jennings Bryan - liberalism had now been folded into a Democratic Party that, in considering only its short-term institutional needs, was about to disembowel itself. It turned out not to be necessary for the right to actually become Populist. Absorbing the old cant now constantly echoed by an intimidated or captive mass media - that liberals are naive, impractical, "out of the mainstream" - Democratic leaders fell for the idea that the right represented the true will of the people, and acted accordingly.

The most incredible expression of this trend was the internalization by Democratic leaders in the 1980s of the Republican charge that the Democrats were the party of "special interests". Suddenly, the myriad individuals liberalism had helped to liberate - union members, African Americans, gay people, women - were illegitimate political actors, no better (or even worse!) than corporate lobbyists. It was ludicrous, but it worked, in large part because it shifted the balance of power not just to Republicans but also to the whitest, wealthiest, most conservative Democratic elites. Assuming a posture of helplessness before the Republicans' fraudulent Populism, the Democrats acquiesced to and assisted in bundling up the nation's industrial base and shipping it overseas - a policy that shut down the working-class escalator to a better life, gutted the unions, and deprived liberals of their main source of political power.

The liberal political system had relied in large part on maintaining American cities as self-perpetuating economic engines, where industrial and postindustrial economies existed side by side. People of all kinds could work at unionized blue-collar jobs that paid well enough for them, or their children, to make the leap to the white-collar jobs of the future, right next door. When liberals and conservatives alike rushed to embrace the new ethos of "globalization", a basic power relationship was reversed. America's business leaders no longer had any stake in the success of the national project, and they accelerated the shipment of both jobs and capital overseas.

The government began to lose - indeed actively to toss away - the chance for true human agency that liberals had fought so hard for in the preceding decades. Instead of building constituencies as counterweights to the rapid consolidation of power by global corporations, politicians in both major parties now had to spend nearly all their time going hat in hand to the leaders of those corporations, trying to raise money. Even as Democrats worked to give up power, they also made sure to ostracize any persons deemed embarrassingly radical - women and people of color in particular - with arranged "Sister Souljah moments" in which party members competed to see who could display the most "independence" by insulting core constituencies.

Working people now faced the same hard choice the Populist farmers had faced a hundred years before. Told relentlessly that they represented a dying class from the "Rust Belt" past, they were instructed to fall in with one major party or the other. Presidential primary campaigns became extended bouts of purging and self-criticism, in which Democrats fell over one another to swear fealty to the paradoxical goals of higher military spending and balanced budgets. Candidates donned duck-hunting gear, grabbed shotguns, and made elaborate displays of assumed folksiness. Party leaders began hunting for self-financed millionaires to run for office, and New York City, once the laboratory for all that was successful about the liberal project, ended up simply electing the richest man in town mayor.

This abasement reached its nadir in 2008, with Obama and Hillary Clinton's bowling and shot- drinking competitions. Democrats had completely unlearned the lessons of coalition building that had served them so well, and learned a new lesson: candidates with the audacity to be black or female could attract the sympathy of blue-collar white men only by condescending to them. Yes, working people have been known to enjoy a whiskey and a few frames after a tough day. They also invented folk music and the blues, like to watch Shakespeare and read the Bible, formed the world's great unions, and came up with ingenious plans to get a few cents more for their crops. But a political class that has learned helplessness must spread it among the people; it's the only way it knows how to survive. Patronizing any group is the first step to ignoring it entirely.

And so we arrive at the present moment, in which the people are not asked to do anything. The fine words and able presentation of Obama, whether delivered at West Point or on Wall Street or in the well of the House of Representatives, obscure the face that they are subtle parodies of a century of liberal argument. Whereas the Populists' soapbox lecturers or the Progressives' magazine exposes or FDR in his radio "fireside chats" explained the way of the world to the people and argued for why and how that way must change, Obama - like most Democratic leaders - concedes that the way of the world is wrong but tells us why it must stay that way because, some time in the past, powerful interests decreed it so.

Thus we are told that single-payer or a public option may be a good idea but that private insurance companies are simply too well-ensconced for reform. Afghanistan may be hopeless, but we have already committed to it. The power of the people is never activated, nothing much is asked or required of us, even as thugs overrun congressional town-hall meetings.

Instead, the party that claims to represent all progressive interests in this country proceeds with its impervious, self-interested agenda. The administration's stated priorities for the near future are to balance the budget before a deep recession has abated and to commit the nation to a long-running war in a dysfunctional Asian country that we neither understand nor care about - thereby promising to repeat, simultaneously, the two worst mistakes made by liberal presidents in the past seventy-five years. As for the long term, the White House will form a commission bent on cutting "entitlements", such as Social Security and Medicare, that are the bedrock of retired Americans' prosperity.

Obama is an adroit politician and, like the last adroit Democratic president, he may be able to secure another term in the White House. Perhaps he will even be able to keep a Democratic majority in Congress, though this now seems unlikelier by the day. But to treat this as a triumph of activism is to say that a prisoner retains free will because he is able to stay in his cell. Obama, the congressional Democrats, and most of our politicians at every level now maneuver within political confines defined by financial and military interests they cannot conceive of challenging. Perversely, our ruling elite today is one of unparalleled diversity, and includes unprecedented numbers of women, minorities, and individuals who have worked their way up to power on brains and determination alone, usually without having inherited connections or wealth. It is a meritocracy much like the one long envisioned by many liberal reformers - and it has decided to capitulate, reap its considerable rewards, and draw the ladder up after it.

Who will challenge this shining fortress upon a hill? The right-wing pseudo-Populists who have devoured the Republican Party may win some victories in the short run. But the Tea Party and its fellow travelers have already become a jointly owned subsidiary of News Corporation and the likes of Dick Armey's Freedom-Works lobby. (To understand just how fraudulent the movement is, one need only look at the $549-a-seat price tag for tickets to its first convention, and the $100,000 speaker's fee paid to Sarah Palin. So much for box socials and sing-alongs.) Right-wing Populism is anyway inherently contradictory, a demand that the state recede to a size that will leave its citizens utterly defenseless against the gigantic forces at loose in the world today. No one is going to abolish the Federal Reserve, or the income tax, or Social Security and Medicare; if they did, small businesses and working people would be trampled beneath the corporate entities bent on their exploitation. The counter-Populism of the right is the prisoner's last, despairing option, to move from learned helplessness to suicide.

Coming to power when he did, with the political skills and the majorities he possesses, Barack Obama squandered an almost unprecedented opportunity. But it is increasingly clear that he never intended to challenge the power structure he had so skillfully penetrated. With the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations are, once more, people, American democracy has snapped shut again - the great, forced opening of the past 130 years has ended. There is no longer any meaningful reformist impulse left in our politics. The idea of modern American liberalism has vanished among our elite, and simply voting for one man or supporting one of the two major parties will not restore it. The work will have to be done from the ground up, and it will have to be done by us.


Kevin Baker's most recent novel, Strivers Row (2007), is the final installment in his "City of Fire" trilogy about New York City. His last article for Harper's Magazine, "Barack Hoover Obama", appeared in the July 2009 issue.

Bill Totten