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Birds, castles and time immemorial.

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A wonderful reminder of a very ancient custom.

We recently watched a programme about Britain’s Castles and Palaces.  Part of the programme focussed on the long (and I mean ‘long’!) history of the Tower of London and the black ravens who watch over it.

The Tower of London is old! Very old.

An aerial view of the Tower of London

An aerial view of the Tower of London

As the website Britain Express explains:

Founded nearly a millennium ago, the Tower of London has been expanded upon over the centuries by many a king and queen. The first foundations were laid in 1078 and the castle has been constantly improved and extended.

The Tower of London is the oldest palace, fortress and prison in Europe. History has it that King Edward of England backed down on his promise to give the throne to William, Duke of Normandy and ended up giving the throne to Harold Godwinson, his English brother-in-law.

Foundations laid in 1078! 936 years ago!

Almost beyond imagination is the story, according to this BBC programme, that the ravens were known to be inhabiting this part of London even before those foundations were laid!

Defenders of the Realm!

Defenders of the Realm!

I’m delighted to see that a segment of that programme has found its way onto YouTube.

Legend says that the kingdom and the Tower will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress…

There are nine ravens at the Tower today (the required six plus a few spare!). Their lodgings are to be found next to the Wakefield Tower. These magnificent birds, large members of the genus Corvus, the crow family, respond only to the Ravenmaster and should not be approached too closely by anyone else!

Rather puts all the craziness of present times into perspective!

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Climate Change and Humanity

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A powerful essay by Tom Engelhardt from his blogsite TomDispatch.

Regular readers of Learning from Dogs know that essays from TomDispatch often find their way onto these pages.  They are republished with the generous permission of Tom and I endeavour to select those essays that shine a new light on a current issue.   No less so than with today’s essay, first published over on TomDispatch on May 22nd, 2014.

Just a note before you start reading Tom’s very important essay.  That there are many links to papers, articles and other references throughout the essay.  (I know, they took me a couple of hours to set up!)  Could I recommend strongly that you ‘click’ on each link and make a note of the references you wish to read at a later time.  I shall be referring to some of them next week when I comment more generally on this fabulous essay.

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Tomgram: Engelhardt, Is Climate Change a Crime Against Humanity?

The 95% Doctrine

Climate Change as a Weapon of Mass Destruction 

By Tom Engelhardt

Who could forget? At the time, in the fall of 2002, there was such a drumbeat of “information” from top figures in the Bush administration about the secret Iraqi program to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and so endanger the United States. And who — other than a few suckers — could have doubted that Saddam Hussein was eventually going to get a nuclear weapon? The only question, as our vice president suggested on “Meet the Press,” was: Would it take one year or five? And he wasn’t alone in his fears, since there was plenty of proof of what was going on. For starters, there were those “specially designed aluminum tubes” that the Iraqi autocrat had ordered as components for centrifuges to enrich uranium in his thriving nuclear weapons program. Reporters Judith Miller and Michael Gordon hit the front page of the New York Times with that story on September 8, 2002.

Then there were those “mushroom clouds” that Condoleezza Rice, our national security advisor, was so publicly worried about — the ones destined to rise over American cities if we didn’t do something to stop Saddam. As she fretted in a CNN interview with Wolf Blitzer on that same September 8th, “[W]e don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” No, indeed, and nor, it turned out, did Congress!

And just in case you weren’t anxious enough about the looming Iraqi threat, there were those unmanned aerial vehicles — Saddam’s drones! — that could be armed with chemical or biological WMD from his arsenal and flown over America’s East Coast cities with unimaginable results. President George W. Bush went on TV to talk about them and congressional votes were changed in favor of war thanks to hair-raising secret administration briefings about them on Capitol Hill.

In the end, it turned out that Saddam had no weapons program, no nuclear bomb in the offing, no centrifuges for those aluminum pipes, no biological or chemical weapons caches, and no drone aircraft to deliver his nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (nor any ships capable of putting those nonexistent robotic planes in the vicinity of the U.S. coast). But what if he had? Who wanted to take that chance? Not Vice President Dick Cheney, certainly. Inside the Bush administration he propounded something that journalist Ron Suskind later dubbed the “one percent doctrine.” Its essence was this: if there was even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, it must be dealt with as if it were a 95%-100% certainty.

Here’s the curious thing: if you look back on America’s apocalyptic fears of destruction during the first 14 years of this century, they largely involved three city-busting weapons that were fantasies of Washington’s fertile imperial imagination. There was that “bomb” of Saddam’s, which provided part of the pretext for a much-desired invasion of Iraq. There was the “bomb” of the mullahs, the Iranian fundamentalist regime that we’ve just loved to hate ever since they repaid us, in 1979, for the CIA’s overthrow of an elected government in 1953 and the installation of the Shah by taking the staff of the U.S. embassy in Tehran hostage. If you believed the news from Washington and Tel Aviv, the Iranians, too, were perilously close to producing a nuclear weapon or at least repeatedly on the verge of the verge of doing so. The production of that “Iranian bomb” has, for years, been a focus of American policy in the Middle East, the “brink” beyond which war has endlessly loomed. And yet there was and is no Iranian bomb, nor evidence that the Iranians were or are on the verge of producing one.

Finally, of course, there was al-Qaeda’s bomb, the “dirty bomb” that organization might somehow assemble, transport to the U.S., and set off in an American city, or the “loose nuke,” maybe from the Pakistani arsenal, with which it might do the same. This is the third fantasy bomb that has riveted American attention in these last years, even though there is less evidence for or likelihood of its imminent existence than of the Iraqi and Iranian ones.

To sum up, the strange thing about end-of-the-world-as-we’ve-known-it scenarios from Washington, post-9/11, is this: with a single exception, they involved only non-existent weapons of mass destruction. A fourth weapon — one that existed but played a more modest role in Washington’s fantasies — was North Korea’s perfectly real bomb, which in these years the North Koreans were incapable of delivering to American shores.

The “Good News” About Climate Change

In a world in which nuclear weapons remain a crucial coin of the realm when it comes to global power, none of these examples could quite be classified as 0% dangers. Saddam had once had a nuclear program, just not in 2002-2003, and also chemical weapons, which he used against Iranian troops in his 1980s war with their country (with the help of targeting information from the U.S. military) and against his own Kurdish population. The Iranians might (or might not) have been preparing their nuclear program for a possible weapons breakout capability, and al-Qaeda certainly would not have rejected a loose nuke, if one were available (though that organization’s ability to use it would still have been questionable).

In the meantime, the giant arsenals of WMD in existence, the American, Russian, Chinese, Israeli, Pakistani, and Indian ones that might actually have left a crippled or devastated planet behind, remained largely off the American radar screen. In the case of the Indian arsenal, the Bush administration actually lent an indirect hand to its expansion. So it was twenty-first-century typical when President Obama, trying to put Russia’s recent actions in the Ukraine in perspective, said, “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors. I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

Once again, an American president was focused on a bomb that would raise a mushroom cloud over Manhattan. And which bomb, exactly, was that, Mr. President?

Of course, there was a weapon of mass destruction that could indeed do staggering damage to or someday simply drown New York City, Washington D.C., Miami, and other East coast cities. It had its own efficient delivery systems — no nonexistent drones or Islamic fanatics needed. And unlike the Iraqi, Iranian, or al-Qaeda bombs, it was guaranteed to be delivered to our shores unless preventive action was taken soon. No one needed to hunt for its secret facilities. It was a weapons system whose production plants sat in full view right here in the United States, as well as in Europe, China, and India, as well as in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and other energy states.

So here’s a question I’d like any of you living in or visiting Wyoming to ask the former vice president, should you run into him in a state that’s notoriously thin on population: How would he feel about acting preventively, if instead of a 1% chance that some country with weapons of mass destruction might use them against us, there was at least a 95% — and likely as not a 100% — chance of them being set off on our soil? Let’s be conservative, since the question is being posed to a well-known neoconservative. Ask him whether he would be in favor of pursuing the 95% doctrine the way he was the 1% version.

After all, thanks to a grim report in 2013 from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we know that there is now a 95%-100% likelihood that “human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming [of the planet] since the mid-20th century.” We know as well that the warming of the planet — thanks to the fossil fuel system we live by and the greenhouse gases it deposits in the atmosphere — is already doing real damage to our world and specifically to the United States, as a recent scientific report released by the White House made clear. We also know, with grimly reasonable certainty, what kinds of damage those 95%-100% odds are likely to translate into in the decades, and even centuries, to come if nothing changes radically: a temperature rise by century’s end that could exceed 10 degrees Fahrenheit, cascading species extinctions, staggeringly severe droughts across larger parts of the planet (as in the present long-term drought in the American West and Southwest), far more severe rainfall across other areas, more intense storms causing far greater damage, devastating heat waves on a scale no one in human history has ever experienced, masses of refugees, rising global food prices, and among other catastrophes on the human agenda, rising sea levels that will drown coastal areas of the planet.

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From two scientific studies just released, for example, comes the news that the West Antarctic ice sheet, one of the great ice accumulations on the planet, has now begun a process of melting and collapse that could, centuries from now, raise world sea levels by a nightmarish 10 to 13 feet. That mass of ice is, according to the lead authors of one of the studies, already in “irreversible retreat,” which means — no matter what acts are taken from now on — a future death sentence for some of the world’s great cities. (And that’s without even the melting of the Greenland ice shield, not to speak of the rest of the ice in Antarctica.)

All of this, of course, will happen mainly because we humans continue to burn fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate and so annually deposit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at record levels. In other words, we’re talking about weapons of mass destruction of a new kind. While some of their effects are already in play, the planetary destruction that nuclear weapons could cause almost instantaneously, or at least (given “nuclear winter” scenarios) within months, will, with climate change, take decades, if not centuries, to deliver its full, devastating planetary impact.

When we speak of WMD, we usually think of weapons — nuclear, biological, or chemical — that are delivered in a measurable moment in time. Consider climate change, then, a WMD on a particularly long fuse, already lit and there for any of us to see. Unlike the feared Iranian bomb or the Pakistani arsenal, you don’t need the CIA or the NSA to ferret such “weaponry” out. From oil wells to fracking structures, deep sea drilling rigs to platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, the machinery that produces this kind of WMD and ensures that it is continuously delivered to its planetary targets is in plain sight. Powerful as it may be, destructive as it will be, those who control it have faith that, being so long developing, it can remain in the open without panicking populations or calling any kind of destruction down on them.

The companies and energy states that produce such WMD remain remarkably open about what they’re doing. Generally speaking, they don’t hesitate to make public, or even boast about, their plans for the wholesale destruction of the planet, though of course they are never described that way. Nonetheless, if an Iraqi autocrat or Iranian mullahs spoke in similar fashion about producing nuclear weapons and how they were to be used, they would be toast.

Take ExxonMobil, one of the most profitable corporations in history. In early April, it released two reports that focused on how the company, as Bill McKibben has written, “planned to deal with the fact that [it] and other oil giants have many times more carbon in their collective reserves than scientists say we can safely burn.” He went on:

The company said that government restrictions that would force it to keep its [fossil fuel] reserves in the ground were ‘highly unlikely,’ and that they would not only dig them all up and burn them, but would continue to search for more gas and oil — a search that currently consumes about $100 million of its investors’ money every single day. ‘Based on this analysis, we are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become “stranded.”‘

In other words, Exxon plans to exploit whatever fossil fuel reserves it possesses to their fullest extent. Government leaders involved in supporting the production of such weapons of mass destruction and their use are often similarly open about it, even while also discussing steps to mitigate their destructive effects. Take the White House, for instance. Here was a statement President Obama proudly made in Oklahoma in March 2012 on his energy policy:

Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75% of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.

Similarly, on May 5th, just before the White House was to reveal that grim report on climate change in America, and with a Congress incapable of passing even the most rudimentary climate legislation aimed at making the country modestly more energy efficient, senior Obama adviser John Podesta appeared in the White House briefing room to brag about the administration’s “green” energy policy. “The United States,” he said, “is now the largest producer of natural gas in the world and the largest producer of gas and oil in the world. It’s projected that the United States will continue to be the largest producer of natural gas through 2030. For six straight months now, we’ve produced more oil here at home than we’ve imported from overseas. So that’s all a good-news story.”

Good news indeed, and from Vladmir Putin’s Russia, which just expanded its vast oil and gas holdings by a Maine-sized chunk of the Black Sea off Crimea, to Chinese “carbon bombs,” to Saudi Arabian production guarantees, similar “good-news stories” are similarly promoted. In essence, the creation of ever more greenhouse gases — of, that is, the engine of our future destruction — remains a “good news” story for ruling elites on planet Earth.

Weapons of Planetary Destruction

We know exactly what Dick Cheney — ready to go to war on a 1% possibility that some country might mean us harm — would answer, if asked about acting on the 95% doctrine. Who can doubt that his response would be similar to those of the giant energy companies, which have funded so much climate-change denialism and false science over the years? He would claim that the science simply isn’t “certain” enough (though “uncertainty” can, in fact, cut two ways), that before we commit vast sums to taking on the phenomenon, we need to know far more, and that, in any case, climate-change science is driven by a political agenda.

For Cheney & Co., it seemed obvious that acting on a 1% possibility was a sensible way to go in America’s “defense” and it’s no less gospel for them that acting on at least a 95% possibility isn’t. For the Republican Party as a whole, climate-change denial is by now nothing less than a litmus test of loyalty, and so even a 101% doctrine wouldn’t do when it comes to fossil fuels and this planet.

No point, of course, in blaming this on fossil fuels or even the carbon dioxide they give off when burned. These are no more weapons of mass destruction than are uranium-235 and plutonium-239. In this case, the weaponry is the production system that’s been set up to find, extract, sell at staggering profits, and burn those fossil fuels, and so create a greenhouse-gas planet. With climate change, there is no “Little Boy” or “Fat Man” equivalent, no simple weapon to focus on. In this sense, fracking is the weapons system, as is deep-sea drilling, as are those pipelines, and the gas stations, and the coal-fueled power plants, and the millions of cars filling global roads, and the accountants of the most profitable corporations in history.

All of it — everything that brings endless fossil fuels to market, makes those fuels eminently burnable, and helps suppress the development of non-fossil fuel alternatives — is the WMD. The CEOs of the planet’s giant energy corporations are the dangerous mullahs, the true fundamentalists, of planet Earth, since they are promoting a faith in fossil fuels which is guaranteed to lead us to some version of End Times.

Perhaps we need a new category of weapons with a new acronym to focus us on the nature of our present 95%-100% circumstances. Call them weapons of planetary destruction (WPD) or weapons of planetary harm (WPH). Only two weapons systems would clearly fit such categories. One would be nuclear weapons which, even in a localized war between Pakistan and India, could create some version of “nuclear winter” in which the planet was cut off from the sun by so much smoke and soot that it would grow colder fast, experience a massive loss of crops, of growing seasons, and of life. In the case of a major exchange of such weapons, we would be talking about “the sixth extinction” of planetary history.

Though on a different and harder to grasp time-scale, the burning of fossil fuels could end in a similar fashion — with a series of “irreversible” disasters that could essentially burn us and much other life off the Earth. This system of destruction on a planetary scale, facilitated by most of the ruling and corporate elites on the planet, is becoming (to bring into play another category not usually used in connection with climate change) the ultimate “crime against humanity” and, in fact, against most living things. It is becoming a “terracide.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (from which some of this essay has been adapted). He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt

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There are so many strong and fundamental points raised in this essay from Tom that I am going to return to them next week.  (Will give it a rest for July 4th!)

Morality, intelligence and humanism.

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An open letter reply to Patrice Ayme.

Two days ago I published a rather introspective post called The temptation to turn ever inwards. It was the result of reading three disturbing essays about the ‘affairs of man'; essays by Tom Engelhardt, Jim Wright and George Monbiot.  Frankly, I wasn’t expecting a great response either in the form of ‘Likes’ or written replies.  However, the first reply, a long reply, came in from Patrice Ayme.  I made the decision to reply to Patrice via a new post; ergo today’s post. Since making that decision a further comment came in from Sue Dreamwalker, also republished today.

What I am going to do is to reproduce Patrice’s comment but interspersed with my replies.

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The biosphere evolved over billions of years. Now it is taken over by critters who live for just a few years. Solution? Make it so that said critters live longer, thus attaching a greater value upon survival.

I presume that the ‘said critters’ refer to humans? The average lifespan of humans has increased hugely. From a life expectancy of 30 years [1] at birth in Medieval Britain, back in the 13th Century, to an average of 67.2 years for humans worldwide in 2010. [2]

That’s an increase of 124% in a little over 700 years.  Yet despite that incredible increase in lifespan, humans have shown no interest in attaching a greater value to their survival: far from it!  One might even muse that humans have attached a greater value to those things that actively harm our survival.

For all the (over-) elaborate set-up of dear Monbiot, it’s simpler than that. Instead of going back to Baby Thatcher, Baroness god save the queen knows what, let’s grab a clear and present example.

I’m unclear as to what is meant by “the over-elaborate set-up” but as a long-time reader of Mr. Monbiot‘s essays I applaud both his commitment to the highest standards of journalism and to the UK’s Guardian newspaper for publishing so many of them over the years.  I would invite Patrice to give an example of over-elaboration coming from the pen of George Monbiot.

Britain, and many of the Brits, say our dear friend Chris Snuggs, a participant to your, and my, site, have said that they hated Europe, because Europe was not democratic enough. However, one of the latest improvement of the European Constitution is now effective: the head of the EC, the European Commission, is now to be elected by the just elected European PARLIAMENT. Guess what?

Chris Snuggs is more than a participant to Learning from Dogs, he is a close friend of many years.  Yes, he has strong views about Europe but those views are expressed in a declared, personal manner.

Chameleon Cameron, came out of the woodworks to bark, in the clearest way, that it was out of the question to do things differently from before, and now dare to have the European Parliament to elect (what is basically) the European Prime Minister.

Never mind that Britain voted for that European Constitutional change.

Never mind that in representative democracies, the leaders of the executive are elected by Parliament.

So what do we see here?

Contradiction within moods and thoughts systems (Britain agreed to the democratic change, and now does not). We also see erroneous ideas imposed (leaders of the executive says Cameron should be nominated undemocratically, that’s erroneous).

The same sort of things is also perking up in Iraq: the USA caused the mess there, committing several major war crimes in the process. Precisely because those war crimes were not prosecuted, a strong push has been exerted on Obama to duplicate Bush, and go back to attack Iraq some more.

Thus, it is simple: there bad ideas out there, and they need to be destroyed. And bad moods too (an example of bad moods is the enormity that the American population was made, by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc., into an accomplice of the most major war crime there is, war of aggression. Now that this war is in the process of being lost, some clamor to have the war pursued with renewed vigor.

We are now the stewards of the biosphere, whether we like it, or not. We can’t just sit on our rumps, strokes dogs, and whine we will attend to our garden (Voltaire style). By doing nothing, we leave criminals such as Bush, or their spirit, or their mood, in power. And thus we become accomplices.

There is total agreement for the idea that humans are the stewards of the biosphere.  But if the “sit on our rumps, strokes dogs and whine we will attend to our garden” is aimed at me, as it appears to be, then I strongly disagree.  Living as simple a life as we can is a long way from “doing nothing”.

So go out there, and engage in combat, bad moods, and bad ideas. That’s what even very old alpha monkeys, covered with age spots, do. We don’t want to let very old monkeys be examples of moral rectitude we cannot emulate.

A last point: Monbiot does not realize the contradiction he engages in. In the guise of criticising the opposition, he puts it on a pedestal, and engages in its very propaganda. Monbiot, and many like him, bemoan a “shift towards conservatism”. Nothing could be more false. People who destroy the biosphere are NOT conservatives. They play conservatives on TV. In truth, they are just the opposite. They are destructionists.

I am of the opinion, totally so, that George Monbiot is not playing at conservatism.

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So, dear reader, there is little in the comment from Patrice that has me nodding my head.  Don’t get me wrong! Patrice Ayme is an individual of extreme intellect as even a dip into his blog will confirm. I am a regular reader of the writings over at that place.

However, there is one major stumbling block for me, one that I have communicated privately to the said Patrice, and that is the issue of anonymity. Because Patrice Ayme is a nom-de-plume.  Despite following ‘his’ writings for some time and sharing the occasional private email, I have almost no idea about who the person is. Yes, ‘his’ writings are often very strong and highly critical of many aspects of modern life, especially the American political system.  But that is not unique.  There is a long line-up of writers doing the same, and doing the same over their signatures: Tom Engelhardt, Jim Wright and George Monbiot and many, many others

For me, hiding one’s identity so securely behind a ‘virtual’ mask yet writing so passionately about many of the issues critically affecting the future of mankind, doesn’t work.  If one can’t or won’t be honest about who they are, then better, perhaps, that they keep their thoughts and ideas close to them.  There is no shortage of people openly being critical about the American Government and much else across the world, and being critical openly.

Later, Sue of Sue Dreamwalker added a comment.  That resonated perfectly with me and it, too, is reproduced in full.

Paul sometimes I despair at how Mankind plays out his life in the world Paul… We bemoan lots as we sit in our homes as the virus of hate, greed, and disaster pours into our living rooms via the BLACK BOX of FEAR tricks… Which helps depress, make us anxious, fearful,…. It insights anger, aggression and the spiral of thought escalates out via the Web… Internet at our fingertips- instant reactions…

Some times I wonder as I ponder… at the soup being remixed… as only this week we hear of ISIS another branch of the terrorists we are now supposed to fear… As the UK now makes friends with its long time enemy Iran.. reinstating diplomatic relationships again.. The Saga runs on an on… With Oil as the major players .

That’s why turning inward is sometimes Paul the only thing we can do… As we can only live our lives… While I so want to save the world.. The world has also got to want to save itself…

I can only live my own life and stop the petty squabbles, the judgements, the criticisms as I mend my own world to live at peace within it…
Once we all realise its our thoughts which in fact we send out, in fear, in anger, as we judge and condemn that are reflected back …

WE create the world.. We consume its products, We want to live in the lifestyles that demand this World to exploit others for riches.. And yet condemn the conditions of the haves and have nots…

We have lost sight of our basic values in life Paul…

So yes I often retreat inwards… I have too.. Because I worry too much about the kind of Earth we are leaving our Grandchildren to grow up in…
~Sue

In final reply to Patrice, I shall reproduce this well-known quotation [3]:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

References:

1. “A millennium of health improvement“. BBC News. 1998-12-27.

2. CIA Factbook.

3.This saying is widely attributed to Voltaire, but cannot be found in his writings. With good reason. The phrase was invented by a later author as an epitome of his attitude. It appeared in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall under the pseudonym Stephen G. Tallentyre.

The temptation to turn ever inwards.

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A run of essays that, collectively, deeply disturb me.

My seventieth birthday is fewer than six months away. Indeed, it will be just a little over two weeks after we celebrate the second anniversary of our arrival to this beautiful homestead back on October 25th, 2012.  Two years: Seventy years! Time seems to run through one’s fingers like the proverbial sand.  It’s difficult to avoid the irony that comes with recognising the two journeys.  The one journey bringing me to living here on our rural Oregonian acres, with stunning scenery, wonderful animals and so much love in the air.  The other journey bringing me to the realisation that this is the Autumn of my life and the sense, the keen sense, of my own mortality.

What, may you ask, has brought this feeling, these words, to the surface?

Well, I’ll tell you.

It’s been the coincidence of essays from three authors across the ‘blogosphere’ that I have recently read.  Taken together, they paint a picture that disturbs me. Very much so. They sing out to me that mankind is spiralling ever downwards to oblivion and that the dark forces of greed, power and control will never be stopped; well not by man that is!

Here are the links to those essays.

The first was from Tom Englehardt.  It was an essay entitled: A Record of Unparalleled Failure published on June 10th. That opened:

The United States has been at war — major boots-on-the-ground conflicts and minor interventions, firefights, air strikes, drone assassination campaigns, occupations, special ops raids, proxy conflicts, and covert actions — nearly nonstop since the Vietnam War began. That’s more than half a century of experience with war, American-style, and yet few in our world bother to draw the obvious conclusions.

Given the historical record, those conclusions should be staring us in the face. They are, however, the words that can’t be said in a country committed to a military-first approach to the world, a continual build-up of its forces, an emphasis on pioneering work in the development and deployment of the latest destructive technology, and a repetitious cycling through styles of war from full-scale invasions and occupations to counterinsurgency, proxy wars, and back again.

The second was from another American, Jim Wright, who is the author of the blog Stonekettle Station. Jim describes himself as:

I’m a retired US Navy Chief Warrant Officer. Nowadays I live in Alaska where I spend most of my time working in my woodshop or fishing. I occasionally consult for the Military. I have delusions of becoming a full time writer – or conquering the universe, whichever is easier…

Thanks to Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism, I followed a link to a recent essay from Jim under the title of Absolutely Nothingpublished on the 14th June.

I’m not going to quote from it, not because I don’t approve of his essay, far from it, but because there are many tough, profane words and I do not wish inadvertently to upset my readers.  But it is very strongly recommended.

The third essay is from fellow Englishman, George Monbiot, whose work has been regularly republished on Learning from Dogs.

While his essay is not specifically about war, unlike the other two, it does, nonetheless, contribute to my feelings of not wanting to engage with anything that is outside being a better husband, landowner and animal lover.  It is called The Values Ratchet and is republished here with the generous permission of George Monbiot.

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The Values Ratchet

June 10th, 2014

How to ensure that nations slide ever further into selfishness, and ever further to the right.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th June 2014

Any political movement that fails to understand two basic psychological traits will, before long, fizzle out. The first is Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Coined by the biologist Daniel Pauly, it originally described our relationship to ecosystems(1), but it’s just as relevant to politics. We perceive the circumstances of our youth as normal and unexceptional – however sparse or cruel they may be. By this means, over the generations, we adjust to almost any degree of deprivation or oppression, imagining it to be natural and immutable.

The second is the Values Ratchet (also known as policy feedback). If, for example, your country has a public health system which ensures that everyone who needs treatment receives it without payment, it helps instil the belief that it is normal to care for strangers, and abnormal and wrong to neglect them(2,3). If you live in a country where people are left to die, this embeds the idea that you have no responsibility towards the poor and weak. The existence of these traits is supported by a vast body of experimental and observational research, of which Labour and the US Democrats appear determined to know nothing.

We are not born with our core values: they are strongly shaped by our social environment. These values can be placed on a spectrum between extrinsic and intrinsic. People towards the intrinsic end have high levels of self-acceptance, strong bonds of intimacy and a powerful desire to help other people. People at the other end are drawn to external signifiers, such as fame, financial success, image and attractiveness(4). They seek praise and rewards from others.

Research across 70 countries suggests that intrinsic values are strongly associated with an understanding of others, tolerance, appreciation, cooperation and empathy(5,6,7). Those with strong extrinsic values tend to have lower empathy, a stronger attraction towards power, hierarchy and inequality, greater prejudice towards outsiders and less concern for global justice and the natural world(8,9). These clusters exist in opposition to each other: as one set of values strengthens, the other weakens(10,11).

People at the extrinsic end tend to report higher levels of stress, anxiety, anger, envy, dissatisfaction and depression than those at the intrinsic end of the spectrum(12,13,14). Societies in which extrinsic goals are widely adopted are more unequal and uncooperative than those with deep intrinsic values. In one experiment, people with strong extrinsic values who were given a resource to share soon exhausted it (unlike a group with strong intrinsic values), as they all sought to take more than their due(15).

As extrinsic values are strongly associated with conservative politics, it’s in the interests of conservative parties and conservative media to cultivate these values. There are three basic methods. The first is to generate a sense of threat. Experiments reported in the journal Motivation and Emotion suggest that when people feel threatened or insecure they gravitate towards extrinsic goals(16). Perceived dangers – such as the threat of crime, terrorism, deficits, inflation or immigration – trigger a short-term survival response, in which you protect your own interests and forget other people’s.

The second method is the creation of new frames, structures of thought through which we perceive the world. For example, if tax is repeatedly cast as a burden, and less tax is described as relief, people come to see taxation as a bad thing that must be remedied(17). The third method is to invoke the Values Ratchet: when you change the way society works, our values shift in response. Privatisation, marketisation, austerity for the poor, inequality: they all shift baselines, alter the social cues we receive and generate insecurity and a sense of threat.

Margaret Thatcher’s political genius arose from her instinctive understanding of these traits, long before they were described by psychologists and cognitive linguists: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”(18) But Labour and the Democrats no longer have objects, only methods. Their political philosophy is simply stated: if at first you don’t succeed, flinch, flinch and flinch again. They seem to believe that if they simply fall into line with prevailing values, people will vote for them by default. But those values and baselines keep shifting, and what seemed intolerable before becomes unremarkable today. Instead of challenging the new values, these parties keep adjusting. This is why they always look like their opponents, with a five-year lag.

There is no better political passion killer than Labour’s Zero-Based Review(19). Its cover is Tory blue. So are the contents. It promises to sustain the coalition’s programme of cuts and even threatens to apply them to the health service(20). But, though it treats the deficit as a threat that must be countered at any cost, it says not a word about plugging the gap with innovative measures such as a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, a land value tax, a progressively-banded council tax or a windfall tax on extreme wealth. Nor does it mention tax avoidance and evasion. The poor must bear the pain through spending cuts, sustaining a cruel and wildly unequal social settlement.

At the end of last month, Chris Leslie, Labour’s Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, promised, like George Osborne, that the cuts would be sustained for “decades ahead”(21). He asserted that Labour’s purpose in government would be to “finish that task on which [the Chancellor] has failed”: namely “to eradicate the deficit”. The following day the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, sought to explain why Labour had joined the political arms race on immigration. In doing so, he revealed that his party will be “radical in reforming our economy” in support of “a determinedly pro-business agenda”(22). They appear to believe that success depends on becoming indistinguishable from their opponents.

It’s not quite as mad as the old tactic among some Marxist groups of promoting inequality and injustice in the hope that popular fury would lead to revolution, but it’s not far off. Quite aside from the obvious flaw (what’s the sodding point of voting for a party that offers no substantial change in policy?), it evinces a near-perfect psychological illiteracy. When a party reinforces conservative values and conservative ideas, when it fails clearly to expound any countervailing values, when it refuses to reverse the direction of the Values Ratchet, what outcome does it expect, other than a shift towards conservatism?

http://www.monbiot.com

References:

1. Daniel Pauly, 1995. Anecdotes and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome of Fisheries. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10. 10:430.

2. Stefan Svallfors, 2010 Policy feedback, generational replacement, and attitudes to state intervention: Eastern and Western Germany, 1990-2006, European Political Science Review, 2, 119-135.

3. Tom Crompton, September 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. WWF-UK. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf

4. Tim Kasser, November 2011. Values and Human Wellbeing. The Bellagio Initiative. http://www.bellagioinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Bellagio-Kasser.pdf

5. Shalom H. Schwartz, 2006. Basic Human Values: Theory, Measurement, and Applications. Revue Française de Sociologie, 47/4. http://bit.ly/1hL1JFJ

6. Frederick Grouzet et al, 2005. The structure of goal contents across fifteen cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 800-816. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/89/5/800/

7. Tom Crompton, September 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. WWF-UK. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf

8. Tim Kasser, November 2011. Values and Human Wellbeing. The Bellagio Initiative. http://www.bellagioinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Bellagio-Kasser.pdf

9. Kennon M. Sheldon and Charles P. Nichols, 2009. Comparing Democrats and Republicans on
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Values. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2009, 39, 3, pp. 589–623.

10. Tim Kasser, November 2011. Values and Human Wellbeing. The Bellagio Initiative. http://www.bellagioinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Bellagio-Kasser.pdf

11. Tom Crompton, September 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. WWF-UK. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf

12. Tim Kasser, 2014. Changes in materialism, changes in psychological well-being: Evidence from three longitudinal studies and an intervention experiment. Motivation and Emotion, 38:1–22. doi: 10.1007/s11031-013-9371-4

13. Kennon M. Sheldon and Tim Kasser, 2008. Psychological threat and extrinsic goal striving. Motivation and Emotion, 32:37–45. Doi: 10.1007/s11031-008-9081-5 http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2008_SheldonKasser_MOEM.pdf

14. Tim Kasser, November 2011. Values and Human Wellbeing. The Bellagio Initiative. http://www.bellagioinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Bellagio-Kasser.pdf

15. Kennon M. Sheldon, and Holly McGregor, 2000. Extrinsic value orientation and the “tragedy of the commons.” Journal of Personality, 68, 383–411. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-6494.00101/abstract;jsessionid=A7F705A627AE58C7814C6AC62749E128.f03t04

16. Kennon M. Sheldon and Tim Kasser, 2008. Psychological threat and extrinsic goal striving. Motivation and Emotion, 32:37–45. Doi: 10.1007/s11031-008-9081-5 http://www.selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2008_SheldonKasser_MOEM.pdf

17. Tom Crompton, September 2010. Common Cause: The Case for Working with our Cultural Values. WWF-UK. http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf

18. http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/104475

19. http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/uploads/editor/files/Zero_Based_Review.pdf

20. “We will be cutting departmental spending in 2015-16 and not raising it, with no more borrowing to cover day-to-day spending”
“The fundamental principle of the Zero-Based Review is that all spending is in scope and all budgets will be challenged. The review will cover all areas of public spending, including those that have been protected in the current Spending Review such as health”.

21. http://press.labour.org.uk/post/87284550049/long-termism-in-public-finance-speech-by-chris-leslie

22. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/30/labour-immigration-ukip-farage

ooOOoo

Sometimes, nay too many times, one has to wonder about the human race and where it is heading!

If after all these thousands of years man continues failing to learn from history, perhaps we should try something different?

Learn from dogs!

Now, the first lesson is about love - unconditional love.

Now, the first lesson is about love – unconditional love.

Market forces.

with 5 comments

A powerful essay from Paul Gilding.

Having our good friends, Andy and Trish, with us for a few days means, quite rightly, that time with them is top of our list; so to speak.

Thus I want to republish a recent post from Paul Gilding that seems to me to be right on the mark.

But first an apology.  About 10 minutes ago (07:40 US PDT yesterday) I pressed the ‘reblog’ key over on Paul Gilding’s posting in error.  Subscribers to Learning from Dogs will have been sent an email to that reblog and then discovered that I had deleted it, in favour of this approach!

Mr Paul Gilding.

Mr Paul Gilding.

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THE GLOBAL ENERGY MARKET’S MOMENT OF TRUTH

If you want to know what addressing climate change will really be like for business and investors, then take a look at today’s electricity and energy markets. Driven by climate policy, technology development, business innovation, NGO campaigns and investment risk analysis, creative destruction is inflicting itself upon the sector with a vengeance – and the process has just begun.

Value is being destroyed at an incredible scale with just one example being European utilities losing $750 billion in market cap in recent years. Another is the huge losses in value for coal companies and the cancellation of a large number of new coal mining projects around the world as the forecast growth in China and India evaporates. As I argued in my last Chronicle, Carbon Crash Solar Dawn, this is not a temporary market blip but a fundamental shift. Company strategies and business models that have been working for generations are collapsing. In parallel we see the creative side of the process, with new industries being built, entrepreneurs flourishing and massive wealth being created. Now the market is working, as it should, allocating capital to the places where risk and return are best aligned. It is at once a beautiful and brutal process to observe.

This is an important inflection point to acknowledge, with significant implications that should reframe our thinking about these issues.

For a start it means, climate policy and its economic consequences have now shifted from future forecasts to present reality. This reality, with all its brutality for existing businesses, give us important insights into what to expect as the world wakes up to climate change. Business is already waking up to what that means in a market economy – creative destruction unleashed to destroy slow responders.

This suggests that traditional corporate responsibility, which argued sustainability was good for all businesses, is outmoded and not helpful. We have moved into an era of win/lose rather than win/win, and with that, sustainability is shifting from ‘environmentalists vs business’ to ‘business vs business’ as I covered in this earlier Chronicle.

Taken together this means we need to change the way we talk and think about climate change and business. Sustainability is not good for many businesses – in fact it means they’ll have to go out of business. This is what sustainability at its core is all about – things that are unsustainable will stop.

While on the one hand this is blindingly obvious, it is a conversation many in business and politics don’t want to acknowledge. So when the previous Australian government brought in its carbon pricing scheme, it went to great lengths to argue that Australia would still have a healthy coal industry. And President Obama’s new regulations on CO2 emissions in the US power industry are likewise being positioned as being as much about health and air pollution as climate policy.

But as Michael Grunwald argues in this Time Magazine piece on “Obama’s War on Coal” – a phrase used by the coal industry to suggest this is unfair and unreasonable – it’s time to face up to the reality of climate action. It is a war on coal, pure and simple. Grunwald calls it the “just but undeclared war ”. But rather than “just” with its moral overtones, we could simply argue it is “necessary” based on any objective analysis of what’s good for the economy and for society. What is necessary is to move a range of companies out of the economy and replace them.

Coal is first in the firing line. As a major cause of CO2 emissions and with the lack of market support for Carbon Capture and Storage suggesting “clean coal” is either a delusion or at best an expensive PR campaign, coal simply has to go. That means coal companies will go out of business, and then oil companies and gas companies will follow them.

This is not a problem at all for the economy, as they will be replaced with new companies and new industries, which will create new jobs, new wealth and new innovations. But it is a major problem for the incumbents who will cease to exist and for their owners who will lose their money. Unless we have that conversation honestly and openly, we are setting ourselves up for pain and suffering we can easily avoid or at least minimise by thinking through the consequences and being better prepared for their departure.

Of course the best way to minimise the pain would be for fossil fuel companies to transition to new areas of business, to use the great wealth they have created to diversify into sustainable sources of profit. But most of them won’t. It’s not that they couldn’t – it’s just that they won’t. And it’s not just coal but also oil and gas who are, for the most part, in strong denial about what’s coming and so won’t be prepared, as well explained in this article by Giles Parkinson at RenewEconomy.

We shouldn’t be surprised. History shows how rare it is for companies to transform and survive major market and technology shifts. That’s why the average life expectancy of a successful multinational is only 40-50 years. And that’s why the financial markets – who act without ideology based on looking at the data – are rapidly responding. They are stripping value from fossil fuel exposed utilities and the resource companies that provide their fuel. They are also downgrading credit risk, with Barclays recently issuing a warning the investors should no longer see utilities as a “sturdy and defensive subset of the investment grade universe”. The report concluded: “We see near-term risks to credit from regulators and utilities falling behind the solar plus storage adoption curve.” No doubt Deutche Bank considered these risks when they recently announced they wouldn’t consider funding a major new coal port next to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

So while the idea of “war on coal” is in some ways an accurate summary of the momentous threats the industry faces from a range of forces that are consciously and deliberately coming after them, we could also just see this as how markets work.

Fossil fuels provide us with energy, but they also destroy value across the economy – by driving climate change, damaging health and increasing costs for taxpayers while imposing unmanageable risks on other companies who rely on a stable climate for their business success. So the market is simply doing its job, pricing in some of these costs using the proxies of regulatory, credit and technology risk.

The market is working …. and fossil fuels are losing.

ooOOoo

Hope you agree with me that it’s a great essay and, also, I hope you followed the links – they are all very interesting.

Those of you who are not familiar with Paul Gilding can find out more about him here.  Plus the following TED Talk by Paul is highly recommended viewing.

D-Day anniversary muse.

with 6 comments

Just a personal reflection.

American paratroopers, heavily armed, sit inside a military plane as they soar over the English Channel en route to the Normandy French coast for the Allied D-Day invasion of the German stronghold during World War II, June 6, 1944. (AP Photo)

American paratroopers, heavily armed, sit inside a military plane as they soar over the English Channel en route to the Normandy French coast for the Allied D-Day invasion of the German stronghold during World War II, June 6, 1944. (AP Photo)

Seventy years ago, to this day, as the whole world now knows, the start of the end of World War II swung into action.  As this website put it (from where this photograph came),

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Allied troops departed England on planes and ships, made the trip across the English Channel and attacked the beaches of Normandy in an attempt to break through Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” and break his grip on Europe. Some 215,000 Allied soldiers, and roughly as many Germans, were killed or wounded during D-Day and the ensuing nearly three months it took to secure the Allied capture of Normandy.

On this day, seventy years ago, my mother was living in London four months pregnant with yours truly. I was born in November, 1944.

The USA frequently gets a hammering in the media, including blog sites, for a whole range of activities.

But the 6th June, 1944 reminds me that when the American people turn their hand to helping others across the world, they can be a most powerful force for good.

That I have lived my almost seventy years in an environment that has allowed me freedom and opportunity and that I write this as a relatively new resident of the United States of America, living happily in rural Oregon, is a testament to that force for good.

Thank you Yankees!

flags

Running on empty!

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Is it just me?

It is my usual pattern to awake around 5am, sit upright in bed and browse the latest news on my tablet computer. Jean sleeps on most times next to me.

Thus it was last Friday morning that I am sitting in bed reading the latest goings on around the world.

But, unusually, that morning’s wanderings left a bleak mark on me. See if you feel the same way when I share the stories that I read.

From Naked Capitalism.

The Tragedy of the Soma Mine-Workers: A Crime of Peripheral Capitalism Unleashed

Posted on May 16, 2014 by Yves Smith

Yves here. This post explains how the horrific mine explosion in Western Turkey, which has officially claimed nearly 300 lives as the death count continues to rise, was not an accident but the direct result of privatization and circumvention of safety standards. And unlike the West, where industrial and mining accidents are met with short-term sympathy but little if any real change in working conditions, protests have broken out, not just in the mine town of Soma but also in major cities. As Mark Ames has pointed out, American has airbrushed out much of the history of labor’s struggles for safe workplaces and better pay. Violence against efforts to organize workers was common. Henry Ford had a private army of thugs for just this purpose. The tragedy in Turkey should serve as a reminder of what has been won, and how fragile those gains are.

By Erinç Yeldan, Dean of the faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, Yasar University and an executive directors of the International Development Economics Associates. Cross posted from Triple Crisis

One of the greatest work-crimes in mining industry occurred in Soma, a little mining village in Western Turkey. At noon-time on Tuesday, May 13, according to witnesses, an electrical fault triggered a transformer to explode causing a large fire in the mine, releasing carbon monoxide and gaseous fumes. (The official cause of the “accident” was still unknown, at this writing, after nearly 30 hours.) Around 800 miners were trapped 2 km underground and 4 km from the exit. At this point, the death toll has already reached 245, with reports of another 100 workers remaining in the mine, yet unreached.

Turkey has possibly the worst safety record in terms of mining accidents and explosions in Europe and the third worst in the world. Since the right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed power in 2002, and up to 2011, a 40% increase in work-related accidents has been reported. The death toll from these accidents reached more than 11,000.

(Read the rest here.)

From the BBC News website:

In just over five years Britain will have run out of oil, coal and gas, researchers have warned.

A report by the Global Sustainability Institute said shortages would increase dependency on Norway, Qatar and Russia.

There should be a “Europe-wide drive” towards wind, tidal, solar and other sources of renewable power, the institute’s Prof Victor Anderson said.

The government says complete energy independence is unnecessary, says BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin.

The report says Russia has more than 50 years of oil, more than 100 years of gas and more than 500 years of coal left, on current consumption.

‘Decisive action’

By contrast, Britain has just 5.2 years of oil, 4.5 years of coal and three years of its own gas remaining.

France fares even worse, according to the report, with less than year to go before it runs out of all three fossil fuels.

(Read the rest here)

Again from Naked Capitalism:

UK Survey Finds High Levels of Depression and Desperation Among the Young

Posted on May 16, 2014 by Yves Smith

If you’ve been keeping half an eye on economic news, the UK has of late been looking pretty spiffy relative to its advanced economy peers, with 2014 growth forecast at 3%. Even though unemployment in the UK is at its lowest level in five years, the young and the long-term unemployed haven’t benefitted to the same degree.

One issue that doesn’t get the attention that it merits is the destructive psychological impact of being out of work. Work doesn’t just provide money, as critical as that is. It provides a way of organizing your time, social interaction, and a place in society, even if that place is not really where you’d like to be. Being unanchored is extremely taxing. Recall that the Japanese get people to quit by giving them a desk and nothing to do. The lack of legitimacy, the implicit shaming of being isolated is sufficiently punitive as to induce workers to give up their pay and being able to tell their families they have a job.

The BBC reports on the results of a survey by the Prince’s Trust called the Macquarie Youth Index, which is based on a survey of roughly 2200 16 to 25 year olds. 13% were what the survey called Neet: not in employment, education, or training.

I will return to the terrible implications of this report after I declare a past interest.  Before I left England in 2008, I was an active volunteer with the Prince’s Trust. My years of being associated with the Trust taught me that helping young persons discover their strengths, enable them to maintain and defend a positive self-image, and offer them real hope for their future lives, was and is the most important role of society; without doubt!

Now back to that report:

The survey found high levels of suicidal thoughts and self harm among this group, and high levels of stress among the young generally. Key excerpts from the article:

The report found 9% of all respondents agreed with the statement: “I have nothing to live for”…

Among those respondents classified as Neet, the percentage of those agreeing with the statement rose to 21%.

The research found that long-term unemployed young people were more than twice as likely as their peers to have been prescribed anti-depressants.

One in three (32%) had contemplated suicide, while one in four (24%) had self-harmed.

The report found 40% of jobless young people had faced symptoms of mental illness, including suicidal thoughts, feelings of self-loathing and panic attacks, as a direct result of unemployment.

Three quarters of long-term unemployed young people (72%) did not have someone to confide in, the study found.

Martina Milburn, chief executive of the Prince’s Trust, said: “Unemployment is proven to cause devastating, long-lasting mental health problems among young people.

(Read the full report here and the BBC report here.)

Then there was the report from the NASA study team that key glaciers in West Antarctica are in an irreversible retreat. First seen by me on the BBC News website, from where the following photograph was taken.

Thwaites Glacier is a huge ice stream draining into the Amundsen Bay.

Thwaites Glacier is a huge ice stream draining into the Amundsen Bay.

To really understand the message that Planet Earth is sending out to us humans, I would recommend reading Antarctica’s Glaciers Disintegrating over on Patrice Ayme’s blog.  Here’s how Patrice finishes that essay:

We imparted acceleration to the biosphere. We are pushing the biosphere around. And we know that the force we are applying is only augmenting. That means the acceleration, and even more the speed of the change, is going to get worse quick. That’s basic dynamics, first quarter of undergraduate physics.

Of course, neither the leaders of France, Great Britain, or the USA has taken such a course: they are basically ignoramuses at the helm (and Angela Merkel, who knows plenty of physics, made a risky bet she seems to be losing).

Clearly, we should instead apply the brakes to the maximum (instead of flooring the accelerator). What would be the price of this cautious? None, for common people: hard work to de-carbonize the world economy would require dozens of millions to be employed that way, in the West alone.

That, of course, is a scary thought for plutocrats, who much prefer us unemployed, impotent, and despondent.

Patrice Aymé

All of this is sending out a message. The message that if we are not very, very careful this could be the end-game for human civilisation on this Planet.

But do you know what really puzzles me?

It’s that this message is increasingly one that meets with nods of approval and words of agreement from more and more people that one sees going about one’s normal life.  Perhaps, because there’s more and more reporting from a wider and wider range of sources. Like The Permaculture Research Institute website recently publishing This Collapse is a ‘Crisis of Bigness’.  Like Grist publishing Walmart is the last place Obama should be making a clean energy speech.

Like Ian Welsh publishing Equal Rights to Profit from Impoverishing People and Causing a Great Extinction Event. Like Patrice in an essay last Friday about the way in which Main Stream Media is Manipulated. Viz:

Main Stream Media (MSM) has been the instrument of control of the People ever since there were oligarchies. It used to be about temples and priests, now it’s more about controlling papers, radio, TV, and the Internet.

and later on:

This crudeness, and vigilance of censorship by the owners [of the New York Times], is why the Obamas, Clintons, Krugmans, and Stiglitzs have to be careful. After all, they are just employees enjoying the perks of the system. Yes, they don’t own it. Ownership is everything. If the servants want to keep on thriving, those “leaders” will have to please the owners. So they “lead” where the real owners are willing us all, the herd, to be led.

Patrice rounds his essay off, thus:

The plutocracy focuses on direct control of the world imperial system, and that means controlling the giants (especially the three military leaders of the West). This is where the propaganda is the thickest.

The New York Times is considered to be the “newspaper of record” in the USA. However, the bottom line is that this is the third century during which it is owned and controlled by a particular family. How can these two elements be compatible? Why is that particular family “of record”?

Even in the Middle Ages, the most absolute kings there were, those of France, actually owned relatively little property. Francois I himself may have worn expensive clothes, but Italian bankers paid for his trips around France. Francois I did not own the media of the time.

What we have now is different. We have an ascending plutocracy that tries to grab the minds ever more. What Putin is doing in Russia is just a particular case, part of a whole.

Hopefully, people will see through this, and get their news from somewhere else than plutocratically owned media, thus bankrupting the MSM (the Internet can support journalists directly: see the successful Mediapart in France).

But I haven’t answered my earlier rhetorical question.  “But do you know what really puzzles me?” Implying that a growing number of people sense there is a problem with today’s world.

That question will be answered tomorrow. Do please return.

Progressing Wisdom – the essay.

with 6 comments

What is wisdom?

On May 11th, Patrice Ayme published an essay entitled Science: Progressing Wisdom.  I found it deeply engaging. At the same time, I was frustrated because there was a part of me that wanted to know more about “Patrice”.

For some time, I had known that Patrice Ayme was a nom-de-plume and that his, or her, identity was carefully protected. Still that part of me that wanted to relate to the real person, for want of a better description, still wouldn’t quieten down.  I offered the following comment:

Patrice, you have demonstrated an amazing breadth of knowledge across your many essays. However, I did wonder if you would be happy to declare your educational experience? As in your specialisation at a degree or Doctorate level (I suspect you do hold a PhD!)? Best wishes, Paul

Patrice’s reply, which you are encouraged to read in full, opened, thus:

You are so funny, Paul! You have an Obsession-Compulsion about “qualifications”.

One of my main ideas, idea #956, is that the authority principle is severely abused. People with Philosophiae Doctor have nothing sacred about them. Goebbels had one (in humanities).

Do you think Goebbels’ authority in humanities is to be “declared”? There were even not just PhDs, but Nobel Laureates, who became Nazis, BEFORE Hitler (who had been sent to spy on them).

No doubt Hitler, a simple caporal, and gifted painter (he lived off it), was super-impressed when he met some of the most educated people in the world, and they were Nazis… Full of PhDs.

One should not confuse the message’s content and her bearer.

This site is about learning to think better. That’s why I go back to the basics.

The idea that, say, those with PhDs is Idionomics, are the only ones qualified to speak about idiocy, is, well, idiotic.

Another reader of Patrice’s essay, gmax, said this, in part:

You have to learn to judge knowledge, not just follow oligarchs like a bleating sheep to learn what’s true and what is not.

That really made me sit up and think! For the first time in my life (I’m 70 later this year), I realised that my own ragged educational experience, as offered yesterday, had left in its wake a personal insecurity over my education, and a consequential weakness in evaluating knowledge with me somehow needing to know the identity of anonymous authors. When Patrice wrote, “Please do not hesitate to make it a post, Paul! I was thinking of it myself, but, as it is, right now, I don’t seem to have the time.“, I couldn’t resist.

Here is my essay.

ooOOoo

Wisdom, knowledge and authority.

Abstract: Wisdom requires clarity of knowledge; no more and no less.

On Tuesday evening, Jean and I rented a movie.  We watched the film American Hustle.

american-hustle-poster

The film tells the story of brilliant con man Irving Rosenfeld, who along with his equally cunning and seductive British partner Sydney Prosser is forced to work for a wild FBI agent Richie DiMaso. DiMaso pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia that’s as dangerous as it is enchanting. Jeremy Renner is Carmine Polito, the passionate, volatile, New Jersey political operator caught between the con-artists and Feds. Irving’s unpredictable wife Rosalyn could be the one to pull the thread that brings the entire world crashing down.

The film has received rave reviews (here’s a typical one in the Guardian newspaper) and was fun to watch; albeit somewhat confusing for much of the first half. At one point towards the end, the hero of the film, Irving Rosenfeld, reflects that, “People see and hear what they want to believe!“.

Bingo!

That is the challenge about accruing wisdom. How to be analytical and wise in learning new thinking and new ideas. In other words, in acquiring knowledge!

If the subject is simple (well on the surface!) as, for example, the effect of the Earth’s gravitational field then that’s fine and dandy.  It’s easy to become wise to the fact that falling off a tall building is likely to kill you.

But take an extremely complex, and highly current matter, that of Planet Earth’s changing climate, and it is extremely difficult for the average person without a scientific background to determine the truth.  Really, when I use the phrase “to determine the truth” in the context of this essay I should have written ‘to gain knowledge‘.

To illustrate that, my good Californian friend of more than 35 years, Dan Gomez, is highly sceptical about climate change as a product of man’s activities.  Recently, I sent him an email with a link to the NBC News report: American Doomsday: White House Warns of Climate CatastrophesThis was Dan’s email reply:

Think about it, Paul.

1. Consider the source and the timing of these new headlines i.e. the left-thinking Obama regime and current unfavorable political challenges.
2. A deflection from mainline issues confronting us today i.e., jobs, economy, healthcare, upcoming elections, Benghazi and IRS political issues.
3. Major opportunity to raise taxes unilaterally without Congress involved.
4. Major opportunity to redistribute corporate wealth from private sector to public sector.
5. Refocus of competitive, free-market energy sector to controlled renewables managed by a few very wealthy political contributors. A lot of money at stake.
6. Man, is empowered via a political party to “save the world” by changing the Weather. The only problem is, there is no solution, no global will and no participants to make anything significant happen i.e., China, Southeast Asia and another billion people scattered about.
7. Euro Zone and USA have already cut CO2 emissions by over 30% each to no avail. In fact, they say it is getting worse after hundreds of billions of dollars already diverted from private sector to public sector with no results. They are now asking for trillions.
8. Average person is not willing to give up his car, nor spend more for battery power (peel back the onion on the battery manufacturing and recycling industry vis a vis CO2 contributions). Much fewer cars, trains, tractors, jets, etc. to make anything work. Sacrifice begins at home.
9. Cows vent 20 times the CO2 emissions in the form of methane than man-made artifacts.  Just saying….
10. Check out the bacteria challenge facing Man. This will help put priorities in order for you.

As always, follow the money and you’ll get your answers…..

I am unable to respond to Dan in an analytical and precise manner. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to so do. Having an emotional response is fine – but it does not advance my personal wisdom.

On the 6th May, I posted an item that featured a TED Talk by scientist Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist no less.  His view is that, “You can’t understand climate change in pieces. It’s the whole, or it’s nothing.”  The TED Talk explains how the big picture of climate change illustrates the endlessly complex interactions of small-scale environmental events.

Just a few days ago, Jean and I had the pleasure of a couple of hours at the home of Leon Hunsaker, renowned meteorologist who has claimed that the 1862 Californian flood could happen again.

Leon Hunsaker has done the math, and he thinks Sacramento isn’t prepared for another series of storms like the ones that hit the state in January 1862.

Leon Hunsaker has done the math, and he thinks Sacramento isn’t prepared for another series of storms like the ones that hit the state in January 1862.

Leon lives less than 5 minutes from us here in Southern Oregon. I asked him what he thought of climate change and he said that the planet’s atmosphere was like a large chocolate cake and man’s activities were no more than the icing on the cake.

So there you are: a range of opinions about this particular, potentially very important, subject. Although in my own (emotional) mind the weight of evidence is in favour of the argument that man is having a deepening and worsening effect on our planet.

Take, for example, the report issued yesterday about significant melting of Antarctica’s glaciers now unstoppable. (Patrice has just released an informative post on the subject!)

People see and hear what they want to believe!” comes immediately back to mind. Dan wants to believe that the planet is going through normal cycles of change.  I want to believe that mankind can make a difference; for the sake of my children and grandson.

Let me turn to the subject of anonymous authors, my Obsession-Compulsion about qualifications!

I have admitted the flaw in my thinking. Here’s the rationale for my change of opinion.

Just two days ago, Tom Engelhardt published his latest TomDispatch, a guest essay by Glenn Greenwald coinciding with the publication of Greenwald’s new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Security State. In that essay, Glenn Greenwald says:

On December 1, 2012, I received my first communication from Edward Snowden, although I had no idea at the time that it was from him.

The contact came in the form of an email from someone calling himself Cincinnatus, a reference to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who, in the fifth century BC, was appointed dictator of Rome to defend the city against attack. He is most remembered for what he did after vanquishing Rome’s enemies: he immediately and voluntarily gave up political power and returned to farming life. Hailed as a “model of civic virtue,” Cincinnatus has become a symbol of the use of political power in the public interest and the worth of limiting or even relinquishing individual power for the greater good.

The world now knows what Glenn Greenwald (and Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker) knew long before.  That Snowden’s anonymity was critically important in the run-up to his knowledge being made widely known.

I was convinced. What is important is not the name and identity of the author of knowledge.  What is important is the knowledge itself. No one would deny Snowden’s right to privacy. Indeed, millions of us would opt for email privacy if we fully realised the ease and extent with which our emails, indeed our communications in general, can be intercepted.

Many know that Patrice is a frequent, outspoken voice about the dangers of plutocracy and the slip-sliding away of democracy in the United States. His, or her, personal safety is the highest need of all. Patrice has a perfect right to privacy.

Which leads on to the final, obvious question. If we do not know the identity of the author of knowledge then how can we be certain that the knowledge is valid?

Answer: Through testing!

Of course!

In the best traditions of research, especially scientific research, testing the validity of a claim is the only certain way of determining the validity of knowledge; of being able to derive wisdom from that knowledge.

Let me give you a clear example.

Commercial aviation is incredibly safe. Many countries operate an equivalent to the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch. That UK AAIB website proclaims:

The purpose of the AAIB is:

To improve aviation safety by determining the causes of air accidents and serious incidents and making safety recommendations intended to prevent recurrence
…It is not to apportion blame or liability.

Keith Conradi, Chief Inspector

Critical to that purpose of improving safety (aka improving knowledge) is looking for trends. Any trends or patterns would be impossible to discover without testing and debate.

Thus what makes aviation safer is no different to what makes all of knowledge reliable: the testing of ideas and of the hypotheses behind those ideas. The identity of the author of those ideas, per se, is irrelevant.

Thus it is clear to me, clear now beyond doubt, that wisdom is the application of knowledge disconnected from the person who is the author of that knowledge. One might see it as a marriage of knowledge and intellect. Nothing more and nothing less!

All aspects of wisdom depend on trust, on the confidence that the knowledge is ‘reliable‘. Reliability gained from debate and testing.

Never forgetting that in the final analysis, as Patrice wrote it:

“Nature is the only authority worth respecting always.”

ooOOoo

In every which way that one can imagine, we have to return to the principles of fairness and balance so beautifully demonstrated to man by the breadth of Nature.  We have to embrace Nature’s wisdom.

In other words, we have to learn from dogs!

The Natural order – fairness.

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I sense the levels of inequity in today’s world reaching crisis levels!

This is the next essay in my irregular series of The Natural order.  The last one, on life and death, was published a couple of weeks ago.

Now it would be tempting to rant on at great length about the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ but there’s a sense of caution about so doing.  Because, to be blunt about it, the lifestyle that Jean and I enjoy here on our rural retreat in Southern Oregon is, compared to millions, a blissful luxury.

So all I will do is to refer to some recent articles and essays that seem, to me anyway, to speak volumes about the terrible and growing levels of inequity between the majority of citizens and ‘the 1%‘!

Patrice Ayme of the blog Patrice Ayme’s Thoughts has long written about inequality.  I recommend you browse his many essays on the subject of plutocracy but this one, USA: Rich Plutos, Poor People, comes to mind fairly quickly; from which I quote:

Plutocracy is a redistribution of wealth, power, income, from We The People to a small minority of controlling parasites. Plutocracy paralyzes the minds with a warped case of inverted decency. Plutocracy is neither optimal for the society, nor the economy.

Plutocracy affects the USA more than Europe, and the minds, even more than the stomachs. The fact that average Americans feel that they are much better off than in the rest of the world reinforces the plutocratization of the USA. Including astounding tolerance for the amazingly corrupt so-called Supreme Court (Supremely plutocratic!).

I’m “Black”, Mom Was White, & Thus We’re In The Black.

I’m “Black”, Mom Was White, & Thus We’re In The Black.

Turning back to this place, not so long ago I published a two-part essay on the loss of democracy.  In the first part, I wrote:

But if you think this is an American problem, let me take you back a couple of days to my post that reflected the feeling that it was all getting too much: I just want to throw up! Reason? Because in that post I referred to a recent essay by George Monbiot called The Shooting Party.  Here are the opening chapters (and you will have to go here to read the numbered references):

As the food queues lengthen, the government is giving our money to the super-rich.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 29th April 2014

So now you might have to buy your own crutches, but you’ll get your shotgun subsidised by the state. A few days after False Economy revealed that an NHS group is considering charging patients for the crutches, walking sticks and neck braces it issues (1), we discovered that David Cameron has intervened to keep the cost of gun licences frozen at £50: a price which hasn’t changed since 2001 (2).

The police are furious: it costs them £196 to conduct the background checks required to ensure that shotguns are issued only to the kind of dangerous lunatics who use them for mowing down pheasants, rather than to the common or garden variety. As a result they – sorry we – lose £17m a year, by subsidizing the pursuits of the exceedingly rich (3). The Country Land and Business Association – the armed wing of the Conservative party – complains that it’s simply not fair to pass on the full cost of the licence to the owners of shotguns (4); unlike, say, the owners of passports or driving licences, who are charged on the basis of full cost recovery.

Three days later – on Friday – the government announced that it will raise the subsidy it provides for grouse moors from £30 per hectare to £56 (5). Yes, you read that right: the British government subsidises grouse moors, which are owned by 1% of the 1% and used by people who are scarcely less rich. While the poor are being forced out of their homes through government cuts, it is raising the payments – across hundreds of thousands of hectares – that some owners use to burn and cut the land (helping to cause floods downstream), shoot or poison hen harriers and other predators, and scar the hills with roads and shooting butts (6). While the rest of us can go to the devil, the interests of the very rich are ringfenced.

Shortly, I’m going to refer to another Monbiot essay recently published that underscores, once again, the corruption of fairness that is happening in the United Kingdom.

Before that, let me remind all you great readers the lesson we should, and must, learn from Nature. Again, using something recently posted:

OK, I opened today’s post with the sub-heading “Probably just now the most important lesson to be learnt from dogs!” Let me expand on that.

Dogs, like many other ‘pack’ animals, have a relatively flat hierarchy across their group.  Typically, a wild dog pack numbered upwards of 30 animals although in modern times we have only the African Wild dog left to study.  Nevertheless, the African Wild dog offers mankind the key lesson about cooperation and social equality.  Here’s an extract from a National Geographic article [my emphasis]:

African Wild Dog Lycaon pictus

Known as African wild, painted, or Cape hunting dogs, these endangered canines closely resemble wolves in their pack-oriented social structure. Photograph by Chris Johns

Known as African wild, painted, or Cape hunting dogs, these endangered canines closely resemble wolves in their pack-oriented social structure.
Photograph by Chris Johns

The African wild dog, also called Cape hunting dog or painted dog, typically roams the open plains and sparse woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa.

These long-legged canines have only four toes per foot, unlike other dogs, which have five toes on their forefeet. The dog’s Latin name means “painted wolf,” referring to the animal’s irregular, mottled coat, which features patches of red, black, brown, white, and yellow fur. Each animal has its own unique coat pattern, and all have big, rounded ears.

African wild dogs live in packs that are usually dominated by a monogamous breeding pair. The female has a litter of 2 to 20 pups, which are cared for by the entire pack. These dogs are very social, and packs have been known to share food and to assist weak or ill members. Social interactions are common, and the dogs communicate by touch, actions, and vocalizations.

African wild dogs hunt in formidable, cooperative packs of 6 to 20 (or more) animals. Larger packs were more common before the dogs became endangered.

So back to the domesticated dog.  There are just three ‘roles’ to be found: the female alpha dog, the male beta dog and the omega dog that can be of either gender. Even though in a group of dogs (we have eight here at home) the alpha and beta dogs are dominant and will eat first, there is no question of denying the other dogs in the group access to food, water and love from us humans.

The lesson we must learn from dogs is obvious and there’s no need for me to spell it out!

This, then, is the power of the natural order as it applies to animal ‘communities’.

Nature, one way or another, will show us that the natural order is the only ruling order on this natural planet.

So with those tones of mine hopefully ringing in your ears, have a read of this recent Monbiot essay republished with Mr. Monbiot’s kind permission.

ooOOoo

Land of Impunity

May 5, 2014

Politicians and government contractors now seem to be able to get away with almost anything.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 6th May 2014.

What do you have to do to fall out of favour with this government? Last month, the security company G4S was quietly rehabilitated (1). It had been banned in August 2013 from bidding for government contracts (2), after charging the state for tagging 3,000 phantom criminals (3). Those who had died before it started monitoring them presented a particularly low escape risk. G4S was obliged to pay £109m back to the government.

Eight months later, and before an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office has concluded, back it bounces, seeking more government business. Never mind that it almost scuppered the Olympics (4). Never mind Jimmy Mubenga, an asylum seeker who died in 2010 after being “restrained” by G4S guards(5), or Gareth Myatt, a 15-year-old who died while being held down at a secure training centre in 2004(6). Never mind the scandals and crises at Oakwood, the giant prison it runs(7). G4S, recently described by MPs as one of a handful of “privately-owned public monopolies”(8), is crucial to the government’s attempts to outsource almost everything. So it cannot be allowed to fail.

Was it ever banned at all? Six days after the moratorium was lifted, G4S won a new contract to run services for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs(9). A fortnight later, it was chosen as one of the companies that will run the government’s Help to Work scheme(10). How did it win these contracts if, in the preceding months, it wasn’t allowed to bid?

When I first worked in Brazil, in the late 1980s, the country was widely described as o pais de impunidade: the land of impunity. What this meant was that there were no political consequences. Politicians, officials and contractors could be exposed for the most flagrant corruption, but they remained in post. The worst that happened was early retirement with a fat pension and the proceeds of their villainy safely stashed offshore. It’s beginning to look a bit like that here.

This is not to suggest that the people or companies I name in this article are crooked or corrupt. It’s to suggest that the political class no longer seems to care about failure.

The failure works both ways of course. As Polly Toynbee has shown, the pilot projects for the Help to Work scheme which G4S will run reveal that it’s a complete waste of time and money(11). Yet the government has decided to go ahead anyway, subjecting the jobless to yet more humiliation and pointlessness. Contrast the boundless forgiveness of G4S to the endless castigation for being unemployed.

A record of failure reflects the environment in which such companies are hired: one in which ministers launch improbable schemes then look the other way when they go wrong. G4S had to pay back so much money for the phantom criminals it wasn’t monitoring because it had been doing it for eight years, and no one in government had bothered to check(12). There is no such thing as failure any more, just lessons to be learnt.

Accountability has always been weak in this country, but under this government you must make spectacular efforts to lose your post. At the Leveson inquiry in April 2012, the relationship between the then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and the Murdoch empire that he was supposed to be regulating was exposed in gory detail(13,14). Though he was meant to be deciding impartially whether or not to allow the empire to take over the broadcaster BSkyB, he was secretly exchanging gleeful messages with James Murdoch and his staff(15).

We all knew what it meant. The emails, the Guardian observed, were likely to “sever the slim thread connecting Hunt to his cabinet job.”(16) “After this he’s toast … it’s over for Hunt,” wrote Tom Watson MP(17). “He cannot stay in his post,” said Ed Miliband. “And if he refuses to resign, the prime minister must show some leadership and fire him.”(18) We waited. Hunt remained culture secretary for another four months, then he was promoted to secretary of state for health.

On 2 September 2012, the Guardian revealed that the housing minister, Grant Shapps, had founded a business which “creates web pages by spinning and scraping content from other sites to attract advertising”: a process that looks to me like automated plagiarism(19). He had been promoting the business under the name of Michael Green, who claimed to be an internet marketing guru. Again it looked fatal. Two days later, in the same reshuffle that elevated Hunt, he was promoted to Conservative party chairman.

A real Mr Green – Stephen this time – was ennobled by David Cameron and appointed, democratically of course, as minister for trade and investment. In July 2012, a US Senate committee reported that while Lord Green was chief executive and chairman of HSBC, the bank’s compliance culture was “pervasively polluted”(20). Its branches had “actively circumvented US safeguards … designed to block transactions involving terrorists, drug lords, and rogue regimes.” Billions of dollars from Mexican drug barons, from Iran and from “obviously suspicious” travellers’ cheques “benefiting Russians who claimed to be in the used car business” sluiced through its tills(21). Out went dollars and financial services to banks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh linked to the financing of terrorists. The Guardian reported that HSBC “continued to operate hundreds of accounts with suspected links to Mexican drug cartels, even after Green and fellow executives were told by regulators that HSBC was one of the worst banks for money laundering.”(22)

Green refused to answer questions and sat tight(23). He remained in post for another 17 months, until he gracefully retired in December 2013.

After it had become obvious to almost everyone that it was impossible for them to remain in the Cabinet, David Cameron refused to sack either Liam Fox or Maria Miller. Forgiveness and redemption, by all means. But they are not unconditional: without contrition or even acknowledgement that wrong has been done, there’s no difference between giving people a second chance and engaging in an almighty cover-up.

There has seldom, in the democratic era, been a better time to thrive by appeasing wealth and power, or to fail by sticking to your principles. Politicians who twist and turn on behalf of business are immune to attack. Those who resist are excoriated.

Here’s where a culture of impossible schemes and feeble accountability leads: to cases like that of Mark Wood, a highly vulnerable man who had his benefits cut after being wrongly assessed by the outsourcing company Atos Healthcare as fit for work, and starved to death(24) – while those who run such companies retire with millions. Impunity for the rich; misery for the poor.

http://www.monbiot.com

References:

1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26958650

2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23596541

3. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/mar/12/g4s-repay-overcharging-tagging-contracts

4. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2012/sep/11/g4s-failed-olympic-security-lord-coe

5. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/jul/09/jimmy-mubenga-unlawfully-killed-inquest-jury

6. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2007/jun/29/youthjustice.law

7. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/apr/29/tales-from-inside-oakwood-prison

8. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmpubacc/777/777.pdf?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=contracting-out-public-services-to-the-private-sector-forty-seventh-report-of-session-2013-14-report-together-with-formal-minutes-oral-and-written-evidence

9. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/supportservices/10768641/G4S-wins-first-central-Government-contract-since-tagging-scandal.html

10. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4f9118a6-ceed-11e3-9165-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz30pVTWOXh

11. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/15/help-to-work-punishing-jobless

12. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmpubacc/777/777.pdf?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=contracting-out-public-services-to-the-private-sector-forty-seventh-report-of-session-2013-14-report-together-with-formal-minutes-oral-and-written-evidence

13. http://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/apr/24/leveson-inquiry-jeremy-hunt

14. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/apr/24/jeremy-hunt-murdochs-bskyb-bid

15. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/may/31/jeremy-hunt-james-murdoch-bskyb

16. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/may/24/leveson-inquiry-memo-hunt-murdoch

17. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/apr/24/jeremy-hunt-must-resign

18. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/apr/24/jeremy-hunt-calls-resign-bskyb

19. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/sep/02/grant-shapps-google-howtocorp-adsense

20. http://www.hsgac.senate.gov/subcommittees/investigations/media/hsbc-exposed-us-finacial-system-to-money-laundering-drug-terrorist-financing-risks

21. http://www.hsgac.senate.gov/subcommittees/investigations/hearings/us-vulnerabilities-to-money-laundering-drugs-and-terrorist-financing-hsbc-case-history

22. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2012/jul/22/hsbc-lord-green-mexico-drugs-cash

23. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2012/jul/24/lord-green-hsbc-scandal

24. http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/11112129.Government_admits_Mark_Wood_s_benefits_cut_before_he_starved_to_death__was_wrong_/

ooOOoo

 

The loss of democracy, Part One

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Probably just now the most important lesson to be learnt from dogs! (read to the end!)

I have frequently written about the many growing stresses in societies so, in a sense, today’s post is nothing new.  But the power of a recent essay over on TomDispatch was such that I couldn’t ignore it.  Especially as Tom Engelhardt has given me permission to republish it. I’m referring to the essay by Peter Van Buren under the title of Regime Change in America.

However, while that essay is published wholly as one by Tom, I’m going to break it down into two posts; today and next Monday.  Simply because it resonates so strongly with other items that I want to refer to.

But let me get started by offering you Tom’s introduction to Peter Van Buren’s essay.

The old words are on the rebound, the ones that went out in the last century when the very idea of a Gilded Age, and the plutocrats and oligarchy of wealth that went with it, left the scene in the Great Depression. Now, those three classic terms that were never to return (or so it once seemed) are back in our vocabularies. They’ve been green-lighted by society. (If they’re not on SAT tests in the coming years, I’ll eat my top hat.)

Of course, an inequality gap has been widening into an abyss for decades now, but when it comes to the present boom in old-fashioned words that once went with being really, really, obscenely wealthy and powerful, give the Occupy movement of 2011 credit. After all, they were the ones who took what should already have been on everyone’s lips — the raging inequality in American society — out of the closet and made it part of the national conversation. 1%! 99%!

Now, the stats on national and global inequality are everyday fare (and looking worse all the time). Meanwhile, the book of a French (French!) economist about how the U.S. is leading the way when it comes to inequality and possibly creating the basis for a future… yes!… oligarchy of inherited wealth is on the bestseller list and the talk of the town. And if that weren’t enough, a new study out of Princeton University suggests that, as Talking Points Memo put it, “Over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.” As the two authors of the study write, “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

In an America where, when it comes to the political system, the Supreme Court has now granted the dollar the full right to speak its mind, and ever more of those dollars can be found in the pockets of… well, not to put a fine point on it, plutocrats, we need a new (that is, old) vocabulary to fit our changing circumstances.

In all of this, one thing missing has been the classic American observer, the keen reporter setting out on the road to catch the new look of a land in pain and misery. Today, TomDispatch aims to remedy that. Peter Van Buren, former State Department whistleblower and author of a new book on American inequality, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, has been traveling the ever-expanding, ever-rustier Rust Belt taking the temperature of a land with a significant fever. Here’s his account. Tom

But if you think this is an American problem, let me take you back a couple of days to my post that reflected the feeling that it was all getting too much: I just want to throw up! Reason? Because in that post I referred to a recent essay by George Monbiot called The Shooting Party.  Here are the opening chapters (and you will have to go here to read the numbered references):

As the food queues lengthen, the government is giving our money to the super-rich.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 29th April 2014

So now you might have to buy your own crutches, but you’ll get your shotgun subsidised by the state. A few days after False Economy revealed that an NHS group is considering charging patients for the crutches, walking sticks and neck braces it issues (1), we discovered that David Cameron has intervened to keep the cost of gun licences frozen at £50: a price which hasn’t changed since 2001 (2).

The police are furious: it costs them £196 to conduct the background checks required to ensure that shotguns are issued only to the kind of dangerous lunatics who use them for mowing down pheasants, rather than to the common or garden variety. As a result they – sorry we – lose £17m a year, by subsidizing the pursuits of the exceedingly rich (3). The Country Land and Business Association – the armed wing of the Conservative party – complains that it’s simply not fair to pass on the full cost of the licence to the owners of shotguns (4); unlike, say, the owners of passports or driving licences, who are charged on the basis of full cost recovery.

Three days later – on Friday – the government announced that it will raise the subsidy it provides for grouse moors from £30 per hectare to £56 (5). Yes, you read that right: the British government subsidises grouse moors, which are owned by 1% of the 1% and used by people who are scarcely less rich. While the poor are being forced out of their homes through government cuts, it is raising the payments – across hundreds of thousands of hectares – that some owners use to burn and cut the land (helping to cause floods downstream), shoot or poison hen harriers and other predators, and scar the hills with roads and shooting butts (6). While the rest of us can go to the devil, the interests of the very rich are ringfenced.

So with no further ado, back to the first half of Peter Van Buren’s essay.

ooOOoo

This Land Isn’t Your Land, This Land Is Their Land

An Empire in Decline (City by City, Town by Town)
By Peter Van Buren

As America’s new economy starts to look more like the old economy of the Great Depression, the divide between rich and poor, those who have made it and those who never will, seems to grow ever starker. I know. I’ve seen it firsthand.

Once upon a time, I worked as a State Department officer, helping to carry out the occupation of Iraq, where Washington’s goal was regime change. It was there that, in a way, I had my first taste of the life of the 1%. Unlike most Iraqis, I had more food and amenities than I could squander, nearly unlimited funds to spend as I wished (as long as the spending supported us one-percenters), and plenty of U.S. Army muscle around to keep the other 99% at bay. However, my subsequent whistleblowing about State Department waste and mismanagement in Iraq ended my 24-year career abroad and, after a two-decade absence, deposited me back in “the homeland.”

I returned to America to find another sort of regime change underway, only I wasn’t among the 1% for this one. Instead, I ended up working in the new minimum-wage economy and saw firsthand what a life of lousy pay and barely adequate food benefits adds up to. For the version of regime change that found me working in a big box store, no cruise missiles had been deployed and there had been no shock-and-awe demonstrations. Nonetheless, the cumulative effects of years of deindustrialization, declining salaries, absent benefits, and weakened unions, along with a rise in meth and alcohol abuse, a broad-based loss of good jobs, and soaring inequality seemed similar enough to me. The destruction of a way of life in the service of the goals of the 1%, whether in Iraq or at home, was hard to miss. Still, I had the urge to see more. Unlike in Iraq, where my movements were limited, here at home I could hit the road, so I set off for a look at some of America’s iconic places as part of the research for my book, Ghosts of Tom Joad.

Here, then, are snapshots of four of the spots I visited in an empire in decline, places you might pass through if you wanted to know where we’ve been, where we are now, and (heaven help us) where we’re going.

On the Boardwalk: Atlantic City, New Jersey

Drive in to Atlantic City on the old roads, and you’re sure to pass Lucy the Elephant. She’s not a real elephant, of course, but a wood and tin six-story hollow statue. First built in 1881 to add value to some Jersey swampland, Lucy has been reincarnated several times after suffering fire, neglect, and storm damage. Along the way, she was a tavern, a hotel, and — for most of her life — simply an “attraction.” As owning a car and family driving vacations became egalitarian rights in the booming postwar economy of the 1950s and 1960s, all manner of tacky attractions popped up along America’s roads: cement dinosaurs, teepee-shaped motels, museums of oddities, and spectacles like the world’s largest ball of twine. Their growth paralleled 20 to 30 years of the greatest boom times any consumer society has ever known.

Between 1947 and 1973, actual incomes in the United States rose remarkably evenly across society. Certainly, there was always inequality, but never as sharp and predatory as it is today. As Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography chronicles, in 1932, Detroit produced 1.4 million cars; in 1950, that number was eight million; in 1973, it peaked at 12 million. America was still a developing nation — in the best sense of that word.

Yet as the U.S. economy changed, money began to flow out of the working class pockets that fed Lucy and her roadside attraction pals. By one count, from 1979 to 2007, the top 1% of Americans saw their income grow by 281%. They came to control 43% of U.S. wealth.

You could see it all in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For most of its early life, it had been a workingman’s playground and vacation spot, centered around its famous boardwalk. Remember Monopoly? The street names are all from Atlantic City. However, in the economic hard times of the 1970s, as money was sucked upward from working people, Boardwalk and Park Place became a crime scene, too dangerous for most visitors. Illegal drug sales all but overtook tourism as the city’s most profitable business.

Yet the first time I visited Atlantic City in the mid-1980s, it looked like the place was starting to rebound in the midst of a national economy going into overdrive. With gambling legalized, money poured in. The Boardwalk sprouted casinos and restaurants. Local business owners scrambled to find workers. Everyone and everything felt alive. Billboards boasted of “rebirth.”

Visit Atlantic City in 2014 and it’s again a hollowed-out place. The once swanky mall built on one of the old amusement piers has more stores shuttered than open. Meanwhile, the “We Buy Gold” stores and pawnshops have multiplied and are open 24/7 to rip off the easy marks who need cash bad enough to be out at 4 A.M. pulling off their wedding rings. On a 20-story hotel tower, you can still read the word “Hilton” in dirt shadow where its name had once been, before the place was shuttered.

Trump Plaza, a monument to excess and hubris created by a man once admired as a business magician and talked about as a possible presidential candidate, is now a catalog of decay. The pillows in the rooms smell of sweat, the corners of doors are chipped, many areas need a new coat of paint, and most of the bars and restaurants resemble the former Greyhound bus terminal a few blocks away. People covered with the street gravy that marks the homeless wander the casino, itself tawdry and too dimly lit to inspire fun. There were just too many people who were clearly carrying everything they owned around in a backpack.

Outside, along the Boardwalk, there are still the famous rolling chairs. They are comfortable, bound in wicker, and have been a fixture of Atlantic City for decades. They were once pushed by strong young men, maybe college students earning a few bucks over the summer break. You can still ride the chairs to see and be seen, but now they’re pushed by recent immigrants and not-so-clean older denizens of the city. Lots of tourists still take rides, but there’s something cheap and sad about paying workers close to my own age to wheel you around, just a step above pushing dollars into the G-strings of the strippers in clubs just off the Boardwalk.

One of the things I did while in Atlantic City was look for the family restaurant I had worked in 30 years earlier. It’s now a dollar store run by an angry man. “You buy or you leave,” he said. Those were the last words I heard in Atlantic City. I left.

Dark Side of the Moon: Weirton, West Virginia

The drive into Weirton from the east takes you through some of the prettiest countryside in Maryland and Western Pennsylvania. You cross rivers and pass through the Cumberland Gap along the way and it’s easy going into the town, because the roads are mostly empty during typical business hours. There’s nothing much going on. The surrounding beauty just makes the scarred remains of Weirton that much more shocking when you first come upon them. Take the last turn and suddenly the abandoned steel mills appear like a vision of an industrial apocalypse, nestled by the Ohio River.

In 1909, Ernest T. Weir built his first steel mill next to that river and founded what later became the Weirton Steel Corporation. In the decades to come, the town around it and the mill itself were basically synonymous, both fueled by the industrial needs of two world wars and the consumer economy created following the defeat of Germany and Japan. The Weirton mill directly contributed to wartime triumphs, producing artillery shells and raw steel to support the effort, while Weirton’s sons died on battlefields using the company’s products. (A war memorial across the street from the mill sanctifies the dead, the newest names being from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.)

tomjoadAt its peak, the Weirton Steel Corporation employed more than 12,000 people, and was the largest single private employer and taxpayer in West Virginia. The owners of the mill paid for and built the Weirton Community Center, the Weirton General Hospital, and the Mary H. Weir Library in those glory days. For years the mill also paid directly for the city’s sewers, water service, and even curbside garbage pickup. Taxes were low and life was good.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, costs rose, Asian steel gained traction and American manufacturing started to move offshore. For the first time since the nineteenth century, the country became a net importer of goods. Some scholars consider the mid-1970s a tipping point, when Congress changed the bankruptcy laws to allow troubled companies an easier path to dumping existing union contracts and employee agreements. It was then that Congress also invented individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, which were supposed to allow workers to save money tax-free to supplement their retirements. Most corporations saw instead an opportunity to get rid of expensive pensions. It was around then that some unknown steelworker was first laid off in Weirton, a candidate for Patient Zero of the new economy.

The mill, which had once employed nearly one out of every two people in town, was sold to its employees in 1984 in a final, failed attempt at resuscitation. In the end, the factory closed, but the people remained. Today, the carcass of the huge steel complex sits at one end of Main Street, rusting and overgrown with weeds because it wasn’t even cost-effective to tear it down. Dinosaur-sized pieces of machinery litter the grounds, not worth selling off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, like so many artifacts from a lost civilization. A few people do still work nearby, making a small amount of some specialty metal, but the place seems more like a living museum than a business.

Most of the retail shops on Main Street are now abandoned, though I counted seven bars and two strip clubs. There’s the Mountaineer Food Bank that looks like it used to be a hardware store or maybe a dress shop. The only still-thriving industry is, it seems, gambling. West Virginia legalized “gaming” in 1992 and it’s now big business statewide. (Nationally, legal gambling revenues now top $92.27 billion a year.)

Gambling in Weirton is, however, a far cry even from the decaying Trump Hotel in Atlantic City. There are no Vegas-style casinos in town, just what are called “cafes” strung along Main Street. None were built to be gambling havens. In fact, their prior history is apparent in their architecture: this one a former Pizza Hut, that one an old retail store with now-blacked out windows, another visibly a former diner.

One sunny Tuesday, I rolled into a cafe at 7 A.M., mostly because I couldn’t believe it was open. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness before I could make out three older women feeding nickels into slot machines, while another stood behind a cheap padded bar, a cigarette tucked behind her ear, another stuck to her dry lips. She offered me a drink, gesturing to rows of Everclear pure grain, nearly 99% pure alcohol, and no-name vodka behind her. I declined, and she said, “Well, if you can’t drink all day, best anyway that you not start so early.”

Liquor is everywhere in Weirton. I talked to a group of men drinking out of paper bags on a street corner at 8 A.M. They hadn’t, in fact, been there all night. They were just starting early like the cafe lady said. Even the gas stations were stocked with the ubiquitous Everclear, all octane with no taste or flavor added because someone knew that you didn’t care anymore. And as the state collects tax on it, everyone but you wins.

Booze is an older person’s formula for destruction. For the younger set, it’s meth that’s really destroying Weirton and towns like it across the Midwest. Ten minutes in a bar, a nod at the guy over there, and you find yourself holding a night’s worth of the drug. Small sizes, low cost, adapted to the market. In Weirton, no need even to go shopping, the meth comes to you.

Meth and the Rust Belt were just waiting for each other. After all, it’s a drug designed for unemployed people with poor self-images and no confidence. Unlike booze or weed, it makes you feel smart, sexy, confident, self-assured — before the later stages of addiction set in. For a while, it seems like the antidote to everything real life in the New Economy won’t ever provide. The meth crisis, in the words of author Nick Reding in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, is “as much about the death of a way of life as the birth of a drug.”

The effects of a lifetime working in the mill — or for the young, of a lifetime not working in the mill — were easy enough to spot around town. The library advertised free diabetes screening and the one grocery store had signs explaining what you could and could not buy with SNAP (food stamps, which have been called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program since 2008). The local TV channels were chock-a-block full of lawyers’ ads urging you to call in if you have an asbestos-related illness. A lot of health was left behind in those mills.

There are some nice people in Weirton (and Cleveland, Detroit, or any of the other industrial ghost towns once inhabited by what Bruce Springsteen calls “steel and stories”). I’m sure there were even nicer parts of Weirton further away from the Main Street area where I was hanging out, but if you’re a stranger, it’s sure damn hard to find them. Not too far from the old mill, land was being cleared to make way for a new Walmart, a company which already holds the distinction of being West Virginia’s largest private employer.

In 1982 at the Weirton mill, a union journeyman might have earned $25 an hour, or so people told me. Walmart pays seven bucks for the same hour and fights like a junkyard dog against either an increase in the minimum wage or unionization.

Copyright 2014 Peter Van Buren

ooOOoo

OK, I opened today’s post with the sub-heading “Probably just now the most important lesson to be learnt from dogs!” Let me expand on that.

Dogs, like many other ‘pack’ animals, have a relatively flat hierarchy across their group.  Typically, a wild dog pack numbered upwards of 30 animals although in modern times we have only the African Wild dog left to study.  Nevertheless, the African Wild dog offers mankind the key lesson about cooperation and social equality.  Here’s an extract from a National Geographic article [my emphasis]:

African Wild Dog Lycaon pictus

Known as African wild, painted, or Cape hunting dogs, these endangered canines closely resemble wolves in their pack-oriented social structure. Photograph by Chris Johns

Known as African wild, painted, or Cape hunting dogs, these endangered canines closely resemble wolves in their pack-oriented social structure.
Photograph by Chris Johns

The African wild dog, also called Cape hunting dog or painted dog, typically roams the open plains and sparse woodlands of sub-Saharan Africa.

These long-legged canines have only four toes per foot, unlike other dogs, which have five toes on their forefeet. The dog’s Latin name means “painted wolf,” referring to the animal’s irregular, mottled coat, which features patches of red, black, brown, white, and yellow fur. Each animal has its own unique coat pattern, and all have big, rounded ears.

African wild dogs live in packs that are usually dominated by a monogamous breeding pair. The female has a litter of 2 to 20 pups, which are cared for by the entire pack. These dogs are very social, and packs have been known to share food and to assist weak or ill members. Social interactions are common, and the dogs communicate by touch, actions, and vocalizations.

African wild dogs hunt in formidable, cooperative packs of 6 to 20 (or more) animals. Larger packs were more common before the dogs became endangered.

So back to the domesticated dog.  There are just three ‘roles’ to be found: the female alpha dog, the male beta dog and the omega dog that can be of either gender. Even though in a group of dogs (we have eight here at home) the alpha and beta dogs are dominant and will eat first, there is no question of denying the other dogs in the group access to food, water and love from us humans.

The lesson we must learn from dogs is obvious and there’s no need for me to spell it out!

The second half of Peter Van Buren’s essay will be published here on Monday.

 

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