Posts Tagged ‘Tom Engelhardt’
A personal viewpoint after reading Tom’s essay Is Climate Change a Crime Against Humanity?
Last Thursday, July 3rd, I republished a post, what Tom calls a Tomgram, from TomDispatch comparing the USA’s attitude to the very small risk of a country exploding a weapon of mass destruction, WMD, over American soil to the 95% risk of the USA being harmed from the effects of climate change. Here’s an extract from the central part of Tom’s essay:
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.
Tom’s essays had many great links to background research papers and other supporting material. The penultimate link was embedded (my italics) in this sentence: “In the case of a major exchange of such weapons, we would be talking about “the sixth extinction” of planetary history.” That linked to the Amazon page describing the book, released earlier this year, of the same name written by Elizabeth Kolbert, as follows:
A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes
Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In The Sixth Extinction, two-time winner of the National Magazine Award and New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert draws on the work of scores of researchers in half a dozen disciplines, accompanying many of them into the field: geologists who study deep ocean cores, botanists who follow the tree line as it climbs up the Andes, marine biologists who dive off the Great Barrier Reef. She introduces us to a dozen species, some already gone, others facing extinction, including the Panamian golden frog, staghorn coral, the great auk, and the Sumatran rhino. Through these stories, Kolbert provides a moving account of the disappearances occurring all around us and traces the evolution of extinction as concept, from its first articulation by Georges Cuvier in revolutionary Paris up through the present day. The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind’s most lasting legacy; as Kolbert observes, it compels us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.
Here’s an interview of Elizabeth Kolbert taken from the Democracy Now programme. It’s a tad under 20 minutes so easy to put aside a little of your time to watch it.
Published on Feb 11, 2014
February 2014 on Democracy Now!
In the history of the planet, there have been five known mass extinction events. The last came 65 million years ago, when an asteroid about half the size of Manhattan collided with the Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs and bringing the Cretaceous period to an end. Scientists say we are now experiencing the sixth extinction, with up to 50 percent of all living species in danger of disappearing by the end of the century. But unlike previous extinctions, the direct cause this time is us — human-driven climate change. In “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” journalist Elizabeth Kolbert visits four continents to document the massive “die-offs” that came millions of years ago and those now unfolding before our eyes. Kolbert explores how human activity — fossil fuel consumption, ocean acidification, pollution, deforestation, forced migration — threatens life forms of all kinds. “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion,” Kolbert writes. “The losses are occurring all over: in the South Pacific and in the North Atlantic, in the Arctic and the Sahel, in lakes and on islands, on mountaintops and in valleys.”
Elizabeth Kolbert, is well known for her reporting on global warming as a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, which led her to investigate climate species extinction. Her new book is The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. In 2006, she wrote Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.
Make no mistake, that short video interview doesn’t pull any punches. Just as Kolbert’s book. It is very tempting to want to hide, to close one’s ears and eyes and pretend it’s all a bad dream and, soon, we will awaken to a bright, new dawn.
(Now for something really lovely! It’s 1:40pm on Sunday, 6th)
I took a quick break to think about my next sentence. I was looking for some words that would encourage us all to do something! Because as John Hurlburt recently wrote: “Failure to act condemns us to death as a species of fools.“
In that short break I saw that someone else had signed up to follow Learning from Dogs. That person describes herself as Elsie Bowen-Dodoo. Her blog is called BowenDiaries. On her About page, Elsie writes:
Elsie Bowen-Dodoo. Living life with a purpose. Persevering to inspire all races.
I write to inspire people hoping that they reading my articles and stuff will be touched to do something positive in their lives.
We really can all make this world a better place to live in.
Talent should not be wasted.
This is the picture on Elsie’s home page.
So here’s my take on where we, as in all mankind, are at.
- We have to turn our backs on growth, greed and materialism.
- Each of us must place caring for our planet our highest priority in life.
- Each of us must be alive to making a positive difference.
- Being true to what we know is right will set us free.
- This will also create ripples of positive energy that will set others free.
- That is the only sustainable way to go.
Let me close by returning to dogs. After all this blog is called Learning from Dogs! By recognising, of course, that these are challenging times. As we are incessantly reminded by the drumbeat of the doom-and-gloom news industry every hour, frequently every half-hour, throughout the day. A symphony of negative energy.
Yet right next to us is a world of positive energy. The world of dogs. A canine world full of love and trust, playfulness and relaxation. A way of living that is both clear and straightforward; albeit far from being simple. As anyone will know who has seen the way dogs interact with each other and with us humans.
In other words, dogs offer endless examples of positive behaviours. The wonderful power of compassion for self, and others, and of loving joy. The way to live that we humans crave for. A life full of hope and positive energy that keeps the power of negativity at bay.
That is the only way forward!
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.
Tomgram: Engelhardt, Is Climate Change a Crime Against Humanity?
The 95% Doctrine
Climate Change as a Weapon of Mass Destruction
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.
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
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!)
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.
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  at birth in Medieval Britain, back in the 13th Century, to an average of 67.2 years for humans worldwide in 2010. 
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?
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.
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…
In final reply to Patrice, I shall reproduce this well-known quotation :
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.“
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.
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 Nothing, published 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.
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?
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
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”.
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!
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.
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.
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!“.
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 Catastrophes. This 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 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!
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.”
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!
A collection of essays and ideas that unite in a common theme.
Back in those times before dogs became the domesticated friends of man, the leader of the pack, the alpha female, had two key pack roles. One of them was having first pick of the males, for mating purposes, and the other was knowing when their territory was no longer conducive to her pack’s interests. When that happened the ‘boss lady’ was the one to signal that the pack had to find another, more beneficial, homestead.
While mankind is in desperate need of learning so many of the qualities of dogs the one example that is beyond us is finding a new homestead. This planet is the only homestead we have.
This basic and fundamental concept seems to be missing from the minds of leaders and power-brokers. Missing big time!
Coincidentally, over recent days there have been three essays from three different authors that scream out the madness, to put it nicely, of the way of our world just now. Let me dip into those three essays.
First, to a recent essay from Tom Engelhardt over at TomDispatch.
American Jihad 2014
The New Fundamentalists
By Tom Engelhardt
In a 1950s civics textbook of mine, I can remember a Martian landing on Main Street, U.S.A., to be instructed in the glories of our political system. You know, our tripartite government, checks and balances, miraculous set of rights, and vibrant democracy. There was, Americans then thought, much to be proud of, and so for that generation of children, many Martians were instructed in the American way of life. These days, I suspect, not so many.
Still, I wondered just what lessons might be offered to such a Martian crash-landing in Washington as 2014 begins. Certainly checks, balances, rights, and democracy wouldn’t top any New Year’s list. Since my childhood, in fact, that tripartite government has grown a fourth part, a national security state that is remarkably unchecked and unbalanced. In recent times, that labyrinthine structure of intelligence agencies morphing into war-fighting outfits, the U.S. military (with its own secret military, the special operations forces, gestating inside it), and the Department of Homeland Security, a monster conglomeration of agencies that is an actual “defense department,” as well as a vast contingent of weapons makers, contractors, and profiteers bolstered by an army of lobbyists, has never stopped growing. It has won the undying fealty of Congress, embraced the power of the presidency, made itself into a jobs program for the American people, and been largely free to do as it pleased with almost unlimited taxpayer dollars.
The expansion of Washington’s national security state — let’s call it the NSS — to gargantuan proportions has historically met little opposition. In the wake of the Edward Snowdenrevelations, however, some resistance has arisen, especially when it comes to the “right” of one part of the NSS to turn the world into a listening post and gather, in particular, American communications of every sort. The debate about this — invariably framed within the boundaries of whether or not we should have more security or more privacy and how exactly to balance the two — has been reasonably vigorous. The problem is: it doesn’t begin to get at the real nature of the NSS or the problems it poses.
If I were to instruct that stray Martian lost in the nation’s capital, I might choose another framework entirely for my lesson. After all, the focus of the NSS, which has like an incubus grown to monumental proportions inside the body of the political system, would seem distinctly monomaniacal, if only we could step outside our normal way of thinking for a moment. At a cost of nearly a trillion dollars a year, its main global enemy consists of thousands of lightly armed jihadis and wannabe jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet. They are capable of causing genuine damage — though far less to the United States than numerous other countries – but not of shaking our way of life. And yet for the leaders, bureaucrats, corporate cronies, rank and file, and acolytes of the NSS, it’s a focus that can never be intense enough on behalf of a system that can never grow large enough or be well funded enough.
It’s a long, deeply thoughtful essay that deserves your full read. This is how it closes:
After 12 long years in Afghanistan and an Obama era surge in that country, the latest grim National Intelligence Estimate from the U.S. intelligence community suggests that no matter what Washington now does, the likelihood is that things there will only go from bad enough to far worse. Years of a drone campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula hasstrengthened that organization; an air intervention in Libya led to chaos, a dead ambassador, and a growing al-Qaeda movement in northern Africa — and so it repetitively goes.
Similarly, intelligence officials brag of terrorist plots – 54 of them! — that have been broken up thanks in whole or in part to the National Security Agency’s metadata sweeps of U.S. phone calls; it also claims that, given the need of secrecy, only four of them can be made public. (The claims of success on even those four, when examined by journalists, have proved less than impressive.) Meanwhile, the presidential task force charged with reviewing the NSA revelations, which had access to a far wider range of insider information, came to aneven more startling conclusion: not one instance could be found in which that metadata the NSA was storing in bulk had thwarted a terrorist plot. “Our review,” the panel wrote, “suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks.” (And keep in mind that, based on what we do know about such terror plots, a surprising number of them were planned or sparked or made possible by FBI-inspired plants.)
In fact, claims of success against such plots couldn’t be more faith-based, relying as they generally do on the word of intelligence officials who have proven themselves untrustworthy or on the impossible-to-prove-or-disprove claim that if such a system didn’t exist, far worse would have happened. That version of a success story is well summarized in the claim that “we didn’t have another 9/11.”
In other words, in bang-for-the-buck practical terms, Washington’s national security state should be viewed as a remarkable failure. And yet, in faith-based terms, it couldn’t be a greater success. Its false gods are largely accepted by acclamation and regularly worshiped in Washington and beyond. As the funding continues to pour in, the NSS has transformed itself into something like a shadow government in that city, while precluding from all serious discussion the possibility of its own future dismantlement or of what could replace it. It has made other options ephemeral and more immediate dangers than terrorism to the health and wellbeing of Americans seem, at best, secondary. It has pumped fear into the American soul. It is a religion of state power.
No Martian could mistake it for anything else.
Tom Engelhardt, 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, 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.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.
Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt
Now let’s move from the USA to the UK. George Monbiot penned an essay on the 6th January about the growing loss of freedoms in my old home country. He opens:
January 6, 2014
A shocking new bill threatens to make this country feel like a giant shopping mall.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 7th January 2014
Until the late 19th Century, much of our city space was owned by private landlords. Squares were gated, streets were controlled by turnpikes. The great unwashed, many of whom had been expelled from the countryside by acts of enclosure, were also excluded from desirable parts of town.
Social reformers and democratic movements tore down the barriers, and public space became a right, not a privilege. But social exclusion follows inequality as night follows day, and now, with little public debate, our city centres are again being privatised or semi-privatised. They are being turned by the companies that run them into soulless, cheerless, pasteurised piazzas, in which plastic policemen harry anyone loitering without intent to shop.
Streetlife in these places is reduced to a trance-world of consumerism, of conformity and atomisation, in which nothing unpredictable or disconcerting happens, a world made safe for selling mountains of pointless junk to tranquilised shoppers. Spontaneous gatherings of any other kind – unruly, exuberant, open-ended, oppositional – are banned. Young, homeless and eccentric people are, in the eyes of those upholding this dead-eyed, sanitised version of public order, guilty until proven innocent.
Then a few paragraphs later, the essay continues:
The existing rules are bad enough. Introduced by the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, anti-social behavour orders (Asbos) have criminalised an apparently endless range of activities, subjecting thousands – mostly young and poor – to bespoke laws. They have been used to enforce a kind of caste prohibition: personalised rules which prevent the untouchables from intruding into the lives of others.
You get an Asbo for behaving in a manner deemed by a magistrate as likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to other people. Under this injunction, the proscribed behaviour becomes a criminal offence. Asbos have been granted which forbid the carrying of condoms by a prostitute, homeless alcoholics from possessing alcohol in a public place, a soup kitchen from giving food to the poor, a young man from walking down any road other than his own, children from playing football in the street. They were used to ban peaceful protests against the Olympic clearances.
Inevitably, over half the people subject to Asbos break them. As Liberty says, these injunctions “set the young, vulnerable or mentally ill up to fail”, and fast-track them into the criminal justice system. They allow the courts to imprison people for offences which are not otherwise imprisonable. One homeless young man was sentenced to five years in jail for begging: an offence for which no custodial sentence exists. Asbos permit the police and courts to create their own laws and their own penal codes.
All this is about to get much worse. Tomorrow the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill reaches its report stage (close to the end of the process) in the House of Lords. It is remarkable how little fuss has been made about it, and how little we know of what is about to hit us.
The bill would permit injunctions against anyone of 10 or above who “has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person.” It would replace Asbos with Ipnas (Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance), which would not only forbid certain forms of behaviour, but also force the recipient to discharge positive obligations. In other words, they can impose a kind of community service on people who have committed no crime, which could, the law proposes, remain in force for the rest of their lives.
The bill also introduces Public Space Protection Orders, which can prevent either everybody or particular kinds of people from doing certain things in certain places. It creates new dispersal powers, which can be used by the police to exclude people from an area (there is no size limit), whether or not they have done anything wrong.
Please read the original essay in full as well as refer to background links that were included in that original. I will offer the closing paragraphs.
The Home Office minister, Norman Baker, once a defender of civil liberties, now the architect of the most oppressive bill pushed through any recent parliament, claims that the amendments he offered in December will “reassure people that basic liberties will not be affected”(11). But Liberty describes them as “a little bit of window-dressing: nothing substantial has changed.”(12)
The new injunctions and the new dispersal orders create a system in which the authorities can prevent anyone from doing more or less anything. But they won’t be deployed against anyone. Advertisers, who cause plenty of nuisance and annoyance, have nothing to fear; nor do opera lovers hogging the pavements of Covent Garden. Annoyance and nuisance are what young people cause; they are inflicted by oddballs, the underclass, those who dispute the claims of power.
These laws will be used to stamp out plurality and difference, to douse the exuberance of youth, to pursue children for the crime of being young and together in a public place, to help turn this nation into a money-making monoculture, controlled, homogenised, lifeless, strifeless and bland. For a government which represents the old and the rich, that must sound like paradise.
The last of the three essays was about Europe, being an essay on Naked Capitalism two days ago.
Death By A Thousand Cuts: The Silent Assassination Of European Democracy
As is gradually dawning on more and more people across the old continent, the European Union is riddled with fatal flaws and defects. Chief among them is the single currency which, rather than serving as the Union’s springboard to global dominance, could well be its ultimate undoing.
Another huge problem with the EU is its acute lack of transparency. Staggering as it may seem, in the last 20 years the Union has not passed a single audit. Indeed, so opaque is the state of its finances that in 2002 Marta Andreasen, the first ever professional accountant to serve as the Commission’s Chief Accountant, refused to sign off the organization’s 2001 accounts, citing concerns that the EU’s accounting system was “open to fraud.” After taking her concerns public, Andreasen was suspended and then later sacked by the Commission.
However, by far the EU’s greatest — and certainly most dangerous — structural flaw is its gaping democratic deficit. To paraphrase Nigel Farage, the stridently anti-EU British MEP, not only is the EU undemocratic, it is fundamentally anti-democratic.
Yet again, the essay must be read in full. As with the others, I will include the closing paragraphs:
Of course none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the abject failure of modern nation-state democracy — not only in Europe, but across the globe. As Mair wrote in the first paragraph of his book, although the political parties themselves remain, “they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”
The European elites have masterfully exploited this crisis of representative democracy and the resultant voter disaffection and apathy to enshrine a new system of rule by bureaucrats, bankers, technocrats and lobbyists (as I reported in Full Steam Ahead For the EU Gravy Train, Brussels is home to the second biggest lobby industry in the world, just behind Washington). If anything, we can expect this trend to accelerate in 2014 as the Eurocrats seek to consolidate their power grab through the imposition of EU-wide banking and fiscal union. Once that’s done, the quest for the holy grail of full-blown political union will begin in earnest.
Whether the EU is able to pull of this ultimate coup de grace in its decades-long coup d’état will depend on two vital factors: its ability to continue preventing economic reality from impacting the financial markets; and the willingness of hundreds of millions of European people to be herded and corralled into a new age of technocracy.
“the abject failure of modern nation-state democracy — not only in Europe, but across the globe.“
Don Quijones wrote that with a focus on Europe. But also a recognition that right across the world the rights and safeguards of everyday citizens are being dangerously undermined. I will return tomorrow with Part Two and an insight into the growing power of those everyday citizens.
It’s really terribly easy - we just have to leave the oil in the ground!
The current issue of The Economist has an article on page 43, under The Americas section, headed Cheap at the price.
It’s a review of the biggest oil auction this year.
A single bid for a vast field shows the weakness of Brazil’s state-led approach to developing its oil reserves
SIX years after discovering giant offshore“pré-sal” oil deposits, so called because they lie beneath a thick layer of salt under the ocean bed, Brazil has finally auctioned the rights to develop some of its deeply buried wealth. On October 21st the Libra field, off Rio de Janeiro’s coast (see map), was sold to a consortium led by Petrobras, Brazil’s state-controlled oil firm, and including France’s Total, Anglo-Dutch Shell and China’s state-owned CNOOC and CNPC. Libra’s estimated 8 billion-12 billion barrels of recoverable oil make it the biggest oil prospect in the world to be auctioned this year. Once it reaches peak production, sometime in the next decade, it should increase Brazil’s output from 2.1m to about 3.5m barrels per day.
The article was critical of the way Brazil managed the auction resulting in just one consortium bidding, against the expectation there would be strong competition for the oil from possibly 40 companies despite the huge costs in extracting it from over 6,000 metres (nearly 20,000 feet) below sea-level. The article didn’t even hint at the madness of even thinking it should be extracted but I guess that’s The Economist for you.
So with that in mind, let me turn to a recent essay from TomDispatch by world-renown climate-change activist Bill McKibben. As regular readers will be aware Tom Engelhardt of the TomDispatch blog has given blanket permission for TD essays to be republished here on Learning from Dogs.
Tomgram: Bill McKibben, Can Obama Ever Stand Up to the Oil Industry?
Recently, “good” news about energy has been gushing out of North America, where a cheering crowd of pundits, energy experts, and government officials has been plugging the U.S. as the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first century. You know, all that fracking and those luscious deposits of oil shale and gas shale just waiting to be pounded into shape to fill global gas tanks for an energy-rich future. And then, of course, just to the north there are those fabulous Canadian tar sands deposits whose extraction is reportedly turning parts of Alberta into an environmental desert. And that isn’t all.
From the melting Arctic, where the Russians and others are staking out energy claims, to the southernmost tip of South America, the dream of new energy wealth is being pursued with a fervor and avidity that is hard to take in. In distant Patagonia, an Argentinean government not previously known for its friendliness to foreign investment has just buddied up with Chevron to drill “around the clock in pursuit of a vast shale oil reservoir that might be the world’s next great oil field.” Huzzah and olé!
And can you even blame the Argentinean president for her choice? After all, who wants to be the country left out of the global rush for new energy wealth? Who wants to consider the common good of the planet, when your country’s finances may be at stake? (As with the Keystone XL pipeline protest movement here, so in Argentina, there actually are environmentalists and others who are thinking of the common good, but they’re up against the state, the police, and Chevron — no small thing.) All of this would, of course, be a wondrous story — a planet filled with energy reserves beyond anyone’s wildest dreams — were it not for the fact that such fossil fuel wealth, such good news, is also the nightmarish bad news of our lives, of perhaps the lifetime of humanity.
There is an obvious disconnect between what is widely known about climate change and the recent rush to extract “tough energy” from difficult environments; between the fires — and potential “mega-fire” — burning wildly across parts of overheated Australia and its newly elected government run by a conservative prime minister, essentially a climate denier, intent on getting rid of that country’s carbon tax. There is a disconnect between hailing the U.S. as the new Saudi Arabia and the recent report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground – or else. There is a disconnect between what our president says about climate change and the basic energy policies of his administration. There is a disconnect between what the burning of fossil fuels will do to our environment and the urge of just about every country on this planet to exploit whatever energy reserves are potentially available to it, no matter how “dirty,” no matter how environmentally destructive to extract.
Somewhere in that disconnect, the remarkable Bill McKibben, whose new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, is at the top of my personal reading list, has burrowed in and helped to create a global climate change movement. In this country, it’s significantly focused on the Keystone XL pipeline slated, if built, to bring tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. For the last several years at TomDispatch, McKibben has kept us abreast of the most recent developments in that movement. Here is his latest report from the tar sands front. Tom
X-Ray of a Flagging Presidency
Will Obama Block the Keystone Pipeline or Just Keep Bending?
By Bill McKibben
As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on — and it’s now well over two years old — it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.
Let us stipulate at the start that whether or not to build the pipeline is a decision with profound physical consequences. If he approves its construction, far more of the dirtiest oil on Earth will flow out of the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and reach the U.S. Gulf Coast. Not just right away or for a brief period, but far into the future, since the Keystone XL guarantees a steady flow of profits to oil barons who have their hearts set on tripling production in the far north.
The history of oil spills and accidents offers a virtual guarantee that some of that oil will surely make its way into the fields and aquifers of the Great Plains as those tar sands flow south. The greater and more daunting assurance is this, however: everything that reaches the refineries on the Gulf Coast will, sooner or later, spill into the atmosphere in the form of carbon, driving climate change to new heights.
In June, President Obama said that the building of the full pipeline — on which he alone has the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down — would be approved only if “it doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” By that standard, it’s as close to a no-brainer as you can get.
These days, however, as no one will be surprised to hear, brainless things happen in Washington more often than not, and there’s the usual parade of the usual suspects demanding that Keystone get built. In mid-October, a coalition that included Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, not to mention the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, sent Obama a letter demanding that he approve Keystone in order to “maintain investor confidence,” a phrase almost guaranteed to accompany bad ideas. A report last week showed that the Koch brothers stood to earn as much as $100 billion in profits if the pipeline gets built (which would come in handy in helping fund their endless assault on unions, poor people, and democracy).
But don’t think it’s just Republican bigwigs and oil execs rushing to lend the pipeline a hand. Transcanada, the pipeline’s prospective builder, is at work as well, and Obama’s former communications director Anita Dunn is now on the Transcanada dime, producing TV ads in support of the pipeline. It’s a classic example of the kind of influence peddling that knows no partisan bounds. As the activists at Credo put it: “It’s a betrayal of the commitments that so many of us worked so hard for, and that Dunn herself played a huge role in shaping as top strategist on the 2008 campaign and communications director in the White House.”
Credo’s Elijah Zarlin, who worked with Dunn back in 2008, wrote that attack on her. He was the guy who wrote all those emails that got so many of us coughing up money and volunteering time during Obama’s first run for the presidency, and he perfectly exemplifies those of us on the other side of this divide — the ones who actually believed Dunn in 2008, the ones who thought Obama was going to try to be a different kind of president.
On energy there’s been precious little sign of that. Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency has put in place some new power plant regulations, and cars are getting better mileage. But the president has also boasted again and again about his “all of the above” energy policy for “increasing domestic oil production and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” It has, in fact, worked so well that the United States will overtake Russia this year as the biggest combined oil and natural gas producer on the planet and is expected to pass Saudi Arabia as the number one oil producer by 2017.
His administration has okayed oil drilling in the dangerous waters of the Arctic and has emerged as the biggest backer of fracking. Even though he boasts about marginal U.S. cuts in carbon emissions, his green light to fracking means that he’s probably given more of a boost to releases of methane – another dangerous greenhouse gas — than any man in history. And it’s not just the environment. At this point, given what we know about everything from drone warfare to NSA surveillance, the dream of a progressive Obama has, like so many dreams, faded away.
The president has a handy excuse, of course: a truly terrible Congress. And too often — with the noble exception of those who have been fighting for gay rights and immigration reform — he’s had little challenge from progressives. But in the case of Keystone, neither of those caveats apply: he gets to make the decision all by himself with no need to ask John Boehner for a thing, and people across the country have made a sustained din about it. Americans have sent record numbers of emails to senators and a record number of comments to the State Department officials who oversee a “review” of the pipeline’s environmental feasibility; more have gone to jail over this issue than any in decades. Yet month after month, there’s no presidential decision.
There are days, in fact, when it’s hard to muster much fire for the fight (though whenever I find my enthusiasm flagging, I think of the indigenous communities that have to live amid the Mordor that is now northern Alberta). The president, after all, has already allowed the construction of the southern half of the Keystone pipeline, letting Transcanada take land across Texas and Oklahoma for its project, and setting up the beleaguered communities of Port Arthur, Texas, for yet more fumes from refineries.
Stopping the northern half of that pipeline from being built certainly won’t halt global warming by itself. It will, however, slow the expansion of the extraction of tar sands, though the Koch brothers et al. are busy trying to find other pipeline routes and rail lines that would get the dirtiest of dirty energy out of Canada and into the U.S. via destinations from Michigan to Maine. These pipelines and rail corridors will need to be fought as well — indeed the fights are underway, though sometimes obscured by the focus on Keystone. And there are equally crucial battles over coal and gas from the Appalachians to the Pacific coast. You can argue that the president’s people have successfully diverted attention from their other environmental sins by keeping this argument alive long past the moment at which it should have been settled and a decision should have been made.
At this point, in fact, only the thought of those 900,000 extra barrels a day of especially nasty oil coming out of the ground and, via that pipeline, into refineries still makes the fight worthwhile. Oh, and the possibility that, in deciding to block Keystone, the president would finally signal a shift in policy that matters, finally acknowledge that we have to keep most of the carbon that’s still in the ground in that ground if we want our children and grandchildren to live on a planet worth inhabiting.
If the president were to become the first world leader to block a big energy project on the grounds of its effects on climate, it might help dramatically reset the international negotiations that he allowed to go aground at Copenhagen in 2009 — the biggest foreign policy failure of his first term.
But that cascade of “ifs” depends on Obama showing that he can actually stand up to the oil industry. To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement, Keystone looks like a last chance.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of a new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben
President Obama turned 52-years-old on August 4th this year. Michelle, his wife, will be 50-years-old next January, 17th. Their children, Malia and Sasha, are aged 15 and 12 respectively.
Thus this family of four are all sufficiently young to be alive when the consequences of burning all this oil will be very painfully obvious, when all the power and money in the world will come to naught.
So it strikes me that young Malia and Sasha should be shown where Planet Earth’s master circuit-breaker is located. Would be such a shame to leave the lights on when there’s no-one at home.
Where hope and inspiration meets the cold world of reality!
Yesterday’s post Don’t frighten the horses was all about reminding me that fear is a very bad motivator. I promoted the Transition message, “If we can’t imagine a positive future we won’t be able to create it.”
Easy to say, easy to write, less easy to put into practice in the face of really chilling predictions.
My way of introducing today’s guest post, a recent post from TomDispatch. This was an essay by Michael Klare that has been widely shared and commented upon. For good reason. It challenges to the core the terrible consequences of not changing, of not having that image of the positive future we all so badly need.
So with the gracious permission of Tom Engelhardt, here is that essay.
Tomgram: Michael T. Klare, 2040 or Bust
If you’re an oil exec, the world is a rosy place — and I’m not talking about the pink haze of heat that’s been rising from the burning American West all summer. I’m talking about energy consumption where the news just couldn’t be cheerier. Despite declines in North America and Europe, according to a new study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), world consumption of petroleum products in 2012 rose to record heights, a staggering 88.9 million barrels a day. Increases in Asia in particular were impressive, as a snazzy little animated graphic of soaring global oil use, 1980-2012, at the EIA’s website makes clear.
And speaking of upbeat news, there was another rosy record set in 2012 (at least, if you’re an oil exec who could care less about the fate of the planet): carbon dioxide emissions leaped into the atmosphere in record quantities, 31.6 billion tons of CO2, even as U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped, in part because utilities were switching from coal to natural gas. Of course, significant amounts of the coal not used in this country get shipped off to places like China where it no longer counts as U.S. emissions when it heads skyward.
Anyway, put the two together and you can practically see the heat haze of an eternal summer rising on the eastern horizon. In fact, these days even the worst news for the rest of us can be good news for the energy industry. For example, the possibility of an American intervention in Syria, a spreading conflict in the region, and chaos in Middle Eastern oil markets has already helped raise the price of a barrel of crude oil above $115. An American air assault on Syrian military facilities in Damascus could send that price over $120 and cause pain at the pump in the U.S. as well. So you and I won’t be happy, but oil execs will be toasting their good fortune.
In the coming years, there’s likely to be no end to this sort of good news, as Michael Klare,TomDispatch energy expert and author of The Race for What’s Left, makes clear today. If you thought fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions were at unbeatable levels, just wait until he introduces you to Earth 2040. If, by then, you’re the CEO of a big energy company, you’ll truly be in the pink. As for the rest of us, if you’ll excuse the expression, we’ll be in the red. Tom
Our Fossil-Fueled Future
World Energy in 2040
By Michael T. Klare
What sort of fabulous new energy systems will the world possess in 2040? Which fuels will supply the bulk of our energy needs? And how will that change the global energy equation, international politics, and the planet’s health? If the experts at the U.S. Department of Energy are right, the startling “new” fuels of 2040 will be oil, coal, and natural gas — and we will find ourselves on a baking, painfully uncomfortable planet.
It’s true, of course, that any predictions about the fuel situation almost three decades from now aren’t likely to be reliable. All sorts of unexpected upheavals and disasters in the years ahead make long-range predictions inherently difficult. This has not, however, deterred the Department of Energy from producing a comprehensive portrait of the world’s future energy system. Known as the International Energy Outlook (IEO), the assessment incorporates detailed projections of future energy production and consumption. Although dense with statistical data and filled with technical jargon, the 2013 report provides a unique and disturbing picture of our planetary future.
Many of us would like to believe that, by 2040, the world will be far along the path toward a green industrial future with wind, solar, and renewable fuels providing the bulk of our energy supplies. The IEO assumes otherwise. It anticipates a world in which coal — the most carbon-intense of all major fuels — still supplies more of our energy than renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined.
The world it foresees is also one in which oil remains a preeminent source of energy, while hydro-fracking and other drilling techniques for extracting unconventional fossil fuels are far more widely employed than today. Wind and solar energy will also play a bigger role in 2040, but — as the IEO sees it — will still represent only a small fraction of the global energy mix.
Admittedly, International Energy Outlook is a government product of this moment with all the limitations that implies. It envisions the future by extrapolating from current developments. It is not visionary. Its authors can’t imagine energy breakthroughs that have yet to happen, or changes in world attitudes that may affect how energy is dealt with, or events like wars, environmental disasters, and global economic recessions or depressions that could alter the world’s energy situation. Nonetheless, because it assesses current endeavors that are sure to have long-lasting repercussions, like the present massive worldwide investments in shale oil and shale gas extraction, it provides an extraordinary resource for imagining the energy crisis in our future.
Among its major findings are three fundamental developments:
* Global energy use will continue to rise rapidly, with total world consumption jumping from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) in 2010 to an estimated 820 quadrillion in 2040, a net increase of 56%. (A BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.)
* An increasing share of world energy demand will be generated by developing countries, especially those in Asia. Of the nearly 300 quadrillion BTUs in added energy needed to meet global requirements between now and 2040, some 250 quadrillion, or 85%, will be used to satisfy rising demand in the developing world.
* China, which only recently overtook the United States as the world’s leading energy consumer, will account for the largest share — 40% — of the growth in global consumption over the next 30 years.
These projections may not in themselves be surprising, but if accurate, the consequences for the global economy, world politics, and the health and well-being of the planetary environment will be staggering. To meet constantly expanding world requirements, energy producers will be compelled to ramp up production of every kind of fossil fuel at a time of growing concern about the paramount role those fuels play in fostering runaway climate change. Meanwhile, the shift in the center of gravity of energy consumption from the older industrial powers to the developing world will lead to intense competition for access to available supplies.
To fully appreciate the significance of the IEO’s findings, it is necessary to consider four critical trends: the surprising resilience of fossil fuels, the degree to which the world’s energy will be being provided by unconventional fossil fuels, the seemingly relentless global increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, and significant shifts in the geopolitics of energy.
The Continuing Predominance of Fossil Fuels
Anyone searching for evidence that we are transitioning to a system based on renewable sources of energy will be sorely disappointed by the projections in the 2013 International Energy Outlook. Although the share of world energy provided by fossil fuels is expected to decline from 84% in 2010 to 78% in 2040, it will still tower over all other forms of energy. In fact, in 2040 the projected share of global energy consumption provided by each of the fossil fuels (28% for oil, 27% for coal, and 23% for gas) will exceed that of renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined (21%).
Oil and coal continue to dominate the fossil-fuel category despite all the talk of a massive increase in natural gas supplies — the so-called shale gas revolution – made possible by hydro-fracking. Oil’s continued supremacy can be attributed, in part, to the endless growth in demand for cars, vans, and trucks in China, India, and other rising states in Asia. The prominence of coal, however, is on the face of it less expectable. Given the degree to which utilities in the United States and Western Europe are shunning coal in favor of natural gas, the prominence the IEO gives it in 2040 is startling. But for each reduction in coal use in older industrialized nations, we are seeing a huge increase in the developing world, where the demand for affordable electricity trumps concern about greenhouse gas emissions.
The continuing dominance of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix will not only ensure the continued dominance of the great fossil-fuel companies — both private and state-owned — in the energy economy, but also bolster their political clout when it comes to decisions about new energy investment and climate policy. Above all, however, soaring fossil-fuel consumption will result in a substantial boost in greenhouse gas emissions, and all the disastrous effects that come with it.
The Rise of the “Unconventionals”
At present, most of our oil, coal, and natural gas still comes from “conventional” sources — deposits close to the surface, close to shore, and within easy reach of transportation and processing facilities. But these reservoirs are being depleted at a rapid pace and by 2040 — or so the Department of Energy’s report tells us — will be unable to supply more than a fraction of our needs. Increasingly, fossil fuel supplies will be of an “unconventional” character – materials hard to refine and/or acquired from deposits deep underground, far from shore, or in relatively inaccessible locations. These include Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale gas, deep-offshore oil, and Arctic energy.
Until recently, unconventional oil and gas constituted only a tiny share of the world’s energy supply, but that is changing fast. Shale gas, for example, provided a negligible share of the U.S. natural gas supply in 2000; by 2010, it had risen to 23%; in 2040, it is expected to exceed 50%. Comparable increases are expected in Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, and U.S. shale oil (also called “tight oil”).
By definition, unconventional fuels are harder to produce, refine, and transport than conventional ones. In most cases, this means that more energy is consumed in their extraction than in the exploitation of conventional fuels, with more carbon dioxide being emitted per unit of energy produced. As is especially the case with fracking, the extraction of unconventional fuels normally requires significant infusions of water, raising the possibility of competition and conflict among major water consumers over access to supplies that, by 2040, will be severely threatened by climate change.
Relentless Growth in Carbon Emissions
By 2040, humanity will be burning far more fossil fuels than today: 673 quadrillion BTUs, compared to 440 quadrillion in 2010. The continued dominance of fossil fuels, rising coal demand, and a growing reliance on unconventional sources of supply can only have one outcome, as the IEO makes clear: a huge jump in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon dioxide is the most prominent of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, and the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary source of that CO2; hence, the IEO’s projections on energy-related carbon emissions constitute an important measure of humankind’s ongoing role in heating the planet.
And here’s the bad news: as a result of the continued reliance on fossil fuels, global carbon emissions from energy are projected to increase by a stunning 46% between 2010 and 2040, jumping from 31.2 billion to 45.5 billion metric tons. No more ominous sign could be found of the kind of runaway global warming likely to be experienced in the decades to come than this grim figure.
In the IEO projections, all fossil fuels and all of the major consuming regions contribute to this nightmarish future, but coal is the greatest culprit. Of the extra 14.3 billion metric tons of CO2 to be added to global emissions over the next 30 years, 6.8 billion, or 48%, will be generated by the combustion of coal. Because most of the increase in coal consumption is occurring in China and India, these two countries will have a major responsibility for accelerating the pace of global warming. China alone is expected to contribute half of the added CO2 in these decades; India, 11%.
New Geopolitical Tensions
Finally, the 2013 edition of International Energy Outlook is rife with hints of possible new geopolitical tensions generated by these developments. Of particular interest to its authors are the international implications of humanity’s growing reliance on unconventional sources of energy. While the know-how to extract conventional energy resources is by now widely available, the specialized technology needed to exploit shale gas, tar sands, and other such materials is far less so, giving a clear economic advantage in the IEO’s projected energy future to countries which possess these capabilities.
One consequence, already evident, is the dramatic turnaround in America’s energy status. Just a few years ago, many analysts were bemoaning the growing reliance of the United States on energy imports from Africa and the Middle East, with an attendant vulnerability to overseas chaos and conflict. Now, thanks to American leadership in the development of shale and other unconventional resources, the U.S. is becoming less dependent on imported energy and so finds itself in a stronger position to dominate the global energy marketplace.
In one of many celebratory passages on these developments, the IEO affirms that a key to “increasing natural gas production has been advances in the application of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, which made it possible to develop the country’s vast shale gas resources and contributed to a near doubling of total U.S. technically recoverable natural gas resource estimates over the past decade.”
At the same time, the report asserts that energy-producing countries that fail to gain mastery over these new technologies will be at a significant disadvantage in the energy marketplace of 2040. Russia is particularly vulnerable in this regard: heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues to finance government operations, it faces a significant decline in output from its conventional reserves and so must turn to unconventional supplies; its ability to acquire the needed technologies will, however, be hindered by its historically poor treatment of foreign companies.
China is also said to face significant challenges in the new energy environment. Simply to meet the country’s growing need for energy is likely to prove an immense challenge for its leaders, given the magnitude of its requirements and the limits to China’s domestic supplies. As the world’s fastest growing consumer of oil and gas, an increasing share of its energy supplies must be imported, posing the same sort of dependency problems that until recently plagued American leaders. The country does possess substantial reserves of shale gas, but lacking the skills needed to exploit them, is unlikely to become a significant producer for years to come.
The IEO does not discuss the political implications of all this. However, top U.S. leaders, from the president on down, have been asserting that America’s mastery of new energy technologies is contributing to the nation’s economic vitality, and so enhancing its overseas influence. “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in an April speech at Columbia University. “Increasing U.S. energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price shocks. It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”
The Department of Energy’s report avoids such explicit language, but no one reading it could doubt that its authors are thinking along similar lines. Indeed, the whole report can be viewed as providing ammunition for the pundits and politicians who argue that the emerging global energy equation is unusually propitious for the United States (so long, of course, as everyone ignores the effects of climate change) — an assessment that can only energize advocates of a more assertive U.S. stance abroad.
The World of 2040
The 2013 International Energy Outlook offers us a revealing peek into the thinking of U.S. government experts — and their assessment of the world of 2040 should depress us all. But make no mistake, none of this can be said to constitute a reliable picture of what the world will actually look like at that time.
Many of the projected trends are likely to be altered, possibly unrecognizably, thanks to unforeseen developments of every sort, especially in the climate realm. Nonetheless, the massive investments now being made in conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations will ensure that these fuels play a significant role in the energy mix for a long time to come — and this, in turn, means that international efforts to slow the pace of planetary warming are likely to be frustrated. Similarly, Washington’s determination to maintain U.S. dominance in the exploitation of unconventional fuel resources, combined with the desires of Chinese and Russian leaders to cut into the American lead in this field, is guaranteed to provoke friction and distrust in the decades to come.
If the trends identified in the Department of Energy report prove enduring, then the world of 2040 will be one of ever-rising temperatures and sea levels, ever more catastrophic storms, ever fiercer wildfires, ever more devastating droughts. Can there, in fact, be a sadder conclusion when it comes to our future than the IEO’s insistence that, among all the resource shortages humanity may face in the decades to come, fossil fuels will be spared? Thanks to the exploitation of advanced technologies to extract “tough energy” globally, they will remain relatively abundant for decades to come.
So just how reliable is the IEO assessment? Personally, I suspect that its scenarios will prove a good deal less than accurate for an obvious enough reason. As the severity and destructiveness of climate change becomes increasingly evident in our lives, ever more people will be pressing governments around the world to undertake radical changes in global energy behavior and rein in the power of the giant energy companies. This, in turn, will lead to a substantially greater emphasis on investment in the development of alternative energy systems plus significantly less reliance on fossil fuels than the IEO anticipates.
Make no mistake about it, though: the major fossil fuel producers — the world’s giant oil, gas, and coal corporations — are hardly going to acquiesce to this shift without a fight. Given their staggering profits and their determination to perpetuate the fossil-fuel era for as a long as possible, they will employ every means at their command to postpone the age of renewables. Eventually, however, the destructive effects of climate change will prove so severe and inescapable that the pressure to embrace changes in energy behavior will undoubtedly overpower the energy industry’s resistance.
Unfortunately, none of us can actually see into the future and so no one can know when such a shift will take place. But here’s a simple reality: it had better happen before 2040 or, as the saying goes, our goose is cooked.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left, just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at http://www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.
[Note to readers: As most of this text is based on a single document, International Energy Outlook 2013, there are fewer hyperlinks to source material than is usual in my pieces. The report itself can be viewed by clicking here.]
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare
So how to return to a hopeful place?
Like this. Saw this a couple of days ago on Cat Skoor’s blog I Vary Widely. Seemed most appropriate.
Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatch and the clarity of looking backwards.
A few weeks ago, I said that I was trying to move away from writing about the big issues in our lives and refocus on the meanings, both literal and figurative, on what we can learn from dogs. Not been entirely successful with that ambition!
For example, yesterday’s post that included the most incredible video illustrating the size of the universe didn’t mention the ‘dog’ word at all. However, what yesterday did do is to remind us that even the grandest aspect of mankind’s behaviours, of the rise and fall of empires, is a very long way from the the grandness of the universe.
So with that preamble, let me move on to Tom’s recent essay, again published with Tom’s permission. As so often with essays that are published on TomDispatch this one sets out a reality of the America of today that is surely unsustainable. Interesting times!
Tomgram: Engelhardt, Alone and Delusional on Planet Earth
And Then There Was One - Delusional Thinking in the Age of the Single Superpower
By Tom Engelhardt
In an increasingly phantasmagorical world, here’s my present fantasy of choice: someone from General Keith Alexander’s outfit, the National Security Agency, tracks down H.G. Wells’s time machine in the attic of an old house in London. Britain’s subservient Government Communications Headquarters, its version of the NSA, is paid off and the contraption is flown to Fort Meade, Maryland, where it’s put back in working order. Alexander then revs it up and heads not into the future like Wells to see how our world ends, but into the past to offer a warning to Americans about what’s to come.
He arrives in Washington on October 23, 1962, in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a day after President Kennedy has addressed the American people on national television to tell them that this planet might not be theirs — or anyone else’s — for long. (“We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from the risk at any time it must be faced.”) Greeted with amazement by the Washington elite, Alexander, too, goes on television and informs the same public that, in 2013, the major enemy of the United States will no longer be the Soviet Union, but an outfit called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that the headquarters of our country’s preeminent foe will be found somewhere in the rural backlands of… Yemen.
Yes, Yemen, a place most Americans, then and now, would be challenged to find on a world map. I guarantee you one thing: had such an announcement actually been made that day, most Americans would undoubtedly have dropped to their knees and thanked God for His blessings on the American nation. Though even then a nonbeliever, I would undoubtedly have been among them. After all, the 18-year-old Tom Engelhardt, on hearing Kennedy’s address, genuinely feared that he and the few pathetic dreams of a future he had been able to conjure up were toast.
Had Alexander added that, in the face of AQAP and similar minor jihadist enemies scattered in the backlands of parts of the planet, the U.S. had built up its military, intelligence, and surveillance powers beyond anything ever conceived of in the Cold War or possibly in the history of the planet, Americans of that time would undoubtedly have considered him delusional and committed him to an asylum.
Such, however, is our world more than two decades after Eastern Europe was liberated, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War definitively ended, and the Soviet Union disappeared.
Why Orwell Was Wrong
Now, let me mention another fantasy connected to the two-superpower Cold War era: George Orwell’s 1948 vision of the world of 1984 (or thereabouts, since the inhabitants of his novel of that title were unsure just what year they were living in). When the revelations of NSA contractor Edward Snowden began to hit the news and we suddenly found ourselves knee-deep in stories about Prism, XKeyscore, and other Big Brother-ish programs that make up the massive global surveillance network the National Security Agency has been building, I had a brilliant idea — reread 1984.
At a moment when Americans were growing uncomfortably aware of the way their government was staring at them and storing what they had previously imagined as their private data, consider my soaring sense of my own originality a delusion of my later life. It lasted only until I read an essay by NSA expert James Bamford in which he mentioned that, “[w]ithin days of Snowden’s documents appearing in the Guardian and the Washington Post…, bookstores reported a sudden spike in the sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. On Amazon.com, the book made the ‘Movers & Shakers’ list and skyrocketed 6,021 percent in a single day.”
Nonetheless, amid a jostling crowd of worried Americans, I did keep reading that novel and found it at least as touching, disturbing, and riveting as I had when I first came across it sometime before Kennedy went on TV in 1962. Even today, it’s hard not to marvel at the vision of a man living at the beginning of the television age who sensed how a whole society could be viewed, tracked, controlled, and surveiled.
But for all his foresight, Orwell had no more power to peer into the future than the rest of us. So it’s no fault of his that, almost three decades after his year of choice, more than six decades after his death, the shape of our world has played havoc with his vision. Like so many others in his time and after, he couldn’t imagine the disappearance of the Soviet Union or at least of Soviet-like totalitarian states. More than anything else, he couldn’t imagine one fact of our world that, in 1948, wasn’t in the human playbook.
In 1984, Orwell imagined a future from what he knew of the Soviet and American (as well as Nazi, Japanese, and British) imperial systems. In imagining three equally powerful, equally baleful superpowers — Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia — balanced for an eternity in an unwinnable global struggle, he conjured up a logical extension of what had been developing on this planet for hundreds of years. His future was a version of the world humanity had lived with since the first European power mounted cannons on a wooden ship and set sail, like so many Mongols of the sea, to assault and conquer foreign realms, coastlines first.
From that moment on, the imperial powers of this planet — super, great, prospectively great, and near great — came in contending or warring pairs, if not triplets or quadruplets. Portugal, Spain, and Holland; England, France, and Imperial Russia; the United States, Germany, Japan, and Italy (as well as Great Britain and France), and after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union. Five centuries in which one thing had never occurred, the thing that even George Orwell, with his prodigious political imagination, couldn’t conceive of, the thing that makes 1984 a dated work and his future a past that never was: a one-superpower world. To give birth to such a creature on such a planet — as indeed occurred in 1991 — was to be at the end of history, at least as it had long been known.
The Decade of the Stunned Superpower
Only in Hollywood fantasies about evil super-enemies was “world domination” by a single power imaginable. No wonder that, more than two decades into our one-superpower present, we still find it hard to take in this new reality and what it means.
At least two aspects of such a world seem, however, to be coming into focus. The evidence of the last decades suggests that the ability of even the greatest of imperial powers to shape global events may always have been somewhat exaggerated. The reason: power itself may never have been as centrally located in imperial or national entities as was once imagined. Certainly, with all rivals removed, the frustration of Washington at its inability to control events in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere could hardly be more evident. Still, Washington has proven incapable of grasping the idea that there might be forms of power, and so of resistance to American desires, not embodied in competitive states.
Evidence also seems to indicate that the leaders of a superpower, when not countered by another major power, when lacking an arms race to run or territory and influence to contest, may be particularly susceptible to the growth of delusional thinking, and in particular to fantasies of omnipotence.
Though Great Britain far outstripped any competitor or potential enemy at the height of its imperial glory, as did the United States at the height of the Cold War (the Soviet Union was always a junior superpower), there were at least rivals around to keep the leading power “honest” in its thinking. From December 1991, when the Soviet Union declared itself no more, there were none and, despite the dubious assumption by many in Washington that a rising China will someday be a major competitor, there remain none. Even if economic power has become more “multipolar,” no actual state contests the American role on the planet in a serious way.
Just as still water is a breeding ground for mosquitos, so single-superpowerdom seems to be a breeding ground for delusion. This is a phenomenon about which we have to be cautious, since we know little enough about it and are, of course, in its midst. But so far, there seem to have been three stages to the development of whatever delusional process is underway.
Stage one stretched from December 1991 through September 10, 2001. Think of it as the decade of the stunned superpower. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union went unpredicted in Washington and when it happened, the George H. W. Bush administration seemed almost incapable of taking it in. In the years that followed, there was the equivalent of a stunned silence in the corridors of power.
After a brief flurry of debate about a post-Cold War “peace dividend,” that subject dropped into the void, while, for example, U.S. nuclear forces, lacking their major enemy of the previous several decades, remained more or less in place, strategically disoriented but ready for action. In those years, Washington launched modest and halting discussions of the dangers of “rogue states” (think “Axis of Evil” in the post-9/11 era), but the U.S. military had a hard time finding a suitable enemy other than its former ally in the Persian Gulf, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Its ventures into the world of war in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia were modest and not exactly greeted with rounds of patriotic fervor at home. Even the brief glow of popularity the elder Bush gained from his 1990-1991 war against Saddam evaporated so quickly that, by the time he geared up for his reelection campaign barely a year later, it was gone.
In the shadows, however, a government-to-be was forming under the guise of a think tank. It was filled with figures like future Vice President Dick Cheney, future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, future Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, future U.N. Ambassador John Bolten, and future ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, all of whom firmly believed that the United States, with its staggering military advantage and lack of enemies, now had an unparalleled opportunity to control and reorganize the planet. In January 2001, they came to power under the presidency of George W. Bush, anxious for the opportunity to turn the U.S. into the kind of global dominator that would put the British and even Roman empires to shame.
Pax Americana Dreams
Stage two in the march into single-superpower delusion began on September 11, 2001, only five hours after hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the Pentagon. It was then that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already convinced that al-Qaeda was behind the attacks, nonetheless began dreaming about completing the First Gulf War by taking out Saddam Hussein. Of Iraq, he instructed an aide to “go massive… Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
And go massive he and his colleagues did, beginning the process that led to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, itself considered only a precursor to transforming the Greater Middle East into an American protectorate. From the fertile soil of 9/11 — itself something of a phantasmagoric event in which Osama bin Laden and his relatively feeble organization spent a piddling $400,000-$500,000 to create the look of an apocalyptic moment — sprang full-blown a sense of American global omnipotence.
It had taken a decade to mature. Now, within days of the toppling of those towers in lower Manhattan, the Bush administration was already talking about launching a “war on terror,” soon to become the “Global War on Terror” (no exaggeration intended). The CIA would label it no less grandiosly a “Worldwide Attack Matrix.” And none of them were kidding. Finding “terror” groups of various sorts in up to 80 countries, they were planning, in the phrase of the moment, to “drain the swamp” – everywhere.
In the early Bush years, dreams of domination bred like rabbits in the hothouse of single-superpower Washington. Such grandiose thinking quickly invaded administration and Pentagon planning documents as the Bush administration prepared to prevent potentially oppositional powers or blocs of powers from arising in the foreseeable future. No one, as its top officials and their neocon supporters saw it, could stand in the way of their planetary Pax Americana.
Nor, as they invaded Afghanistan, did they have any doubt that they would soon take down Iraq. It was all going to be so easy. Such an invasion, as one supporter wrote in the Washington Post, would be a “cakewalk.” By the time American troops entered Iraq, the Pentagon already had plans on the drawing board to build a series of permanent bases — they preferred to call them “enduring camps” — and garrison that assumedly grateful country at the center of the planet’s oil lands for generations to come.
Nobody in Washington was thinking about the possibility that an American invasion might create chaos in Iraq and surrounding lands, sparking a set of Sunni-Shiite religious wars across the region. They assumed that Iran and Syria would be forced to bend their national knees to American power or that we would simply impose submission on them. (As a neoconservative quip of the moment had it, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”) And that, of course would only be the beginning. Soon enough, no one would challenge American power. Nowhere. Never.
Such soaring dreams of — quite literally — world domination met no significant opposition in mainstream Washington. After all, how could they fail? Who on Earth could possibly oppose them or the U.S. military? The answer seemed too obvious to need to be stated — not until, at least, their all-conquering armies bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and the greatest power on the planet faced the possibility of defeat at the hands of… well, whom?
The Dark Matter of Global Power
Until things went sour in Iraq, theirs would be a vision of the Goliath tale in which David (or various ragtag Sunni, Shiite, and Pashtun versions of the same) didn’t even have a walk-on role. All other Goliaths were gone and the thought that a set of minor Davids might pose problems for the planet’s giant was beyond imagining, despite what the previous century’s history of decolonization and resistance might have taught them. Above all, the idea that, at this juncture in history, power might not be located overwhelmingly and decisively in the most obvious place — in, that is, “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,” as American presidents of this era came to call it – seemed illogical in the extreme.
Who in the Washington of that moment could have imagined that other kinds of power might, like so much dark matter in the universe, be mysteriously distributed elsewhere on the planet? Such was their sense of American omnipotence, such was the level of delusional thinking inside the Washington bubble.
Despite two treasury-draining disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq that should have been sobering when it came to the hidden sources of global power, especially the power to resist American wishes, such thinking showed only minimal signs of diminishing even as the Bush administration pulled back from the Iraq War, and a few years later, after a set of misbegotten “surges,” the Obama administration decided to do the same in Afghanistan.
Instead, Washington entered stage three of delusional life in a single-superpower world. Its main symptom: the belief in the possibility of controlling the planet not just through staggering military might but also through informational and surveillance omniscience and omnipotence. In these years, the urge to declare a global war on communications, create a force capable of launching wars in cyberspace, and storm the e-beaches of the Internet and the global information system proved overwhelming. The idea was to make it impossible for anyone to write, say, or do anything to which Washington might not be privy.
For most Americans, the Edward Snowden revelations would pull back the curtain on the way the National Security Agency, in particular, has been building a global network for surveillance of a kind never before imagined, not even by the totalitarian regimes of the previous century. From domestic phone calls to international emails, from the bugging of U.N. headquarters and the European Union to 80 embassies around the world, from enemies to frenemies to allies, the system by 2013 was already remarkably all-encompassing. It had, in fact, the same aura of grandiosity about it, of overblown self-regard, that went with the launching of the Global War on Terror — the feeling that if Washington did it or built it, they would come.
I’m 69 years old and, in technological terms, I’ve barely emerged from the twentieth century. In a conversation with NSA Director Keith Alexander, known somewhat derisively in the trade as “Alexander the Geek,” I have no doubt that I’d be lost. In truth, I can barely grasp the difference between what the NSA’s Prism and XKeyscore programs do. So call me technologically senseless, but I can still recognize a deeper senselessness when I see it. And I can see that Washington is building something conceptually quite monstrous that will change our country for the worse, and the world as well, and is — perhaps worst of all — essentially nonsensical.
So let me offer those in Washington a guarantee: I have no idea what the equivalents of the Afghan and Iraq wars will be in the surveillance world, but continue to build such a global system, ignoring the anger of allies and enemies alike, and “they” indeed will come. Such delusional grandiosity, such dreams of omnipotence and omniscience cannot help but generate resistance and blowback in a perfectly real world that, whatever Washington thinks, maintains a grasp on perfectly real power, even without another imperial state on any horizon.
Today, almost 12 years after 9/11, the U.S. position in the world seems even more singular. Militarily speaking, the Global War on Terror continues, however namelessly, in the Obama era in places as distant as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The U.S. military remains heavily deployed in the Greater Middle East, though it has pulled out of Iraq and is drawing down in Afghanistan. In recent years, U.S. power has, in an exceedingly public manner, been “pivoting” to Asia, where the building of new bases, as well as the deployment of new troops and weaponry, to “contain” that imagined future superpower China has been proceeding apace.
At the same time, the U.S. military has been ever-so-quietly pivoting to Africa where, as TomDispatch’s Nick Turse reports, its presence is spreading continent-wide. American military bases still dot the planet in remarkable profusion, numbering perhaps 1,000 at a moment when no other nation on Earth has more than a handful outside its territory.
The reach of Washington’s surveillance and intelligence networks is unique in the history of the planet. The ability of its drone air fleet to assassinate enemies almost anywhere is unparalleled. Europe and Japan remain so deeply integrated into the American global system as to be essentially a part of its power-projection capabilities.
This should be the dream formula for a world dominator and yet no one can look at Planet Earth today and not see that the single superpower, while capable of creating instability and chaos, is limited indeed in its ability to control developments. Its president can’t even form a “coalition of the willing” to launch a limited series of missile attacks on the military facilities of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. From Latin America to the Greater Middle East, the American system is visibly weakening, while at home, inequality and poverty are on the rise, infrastructure crumbles, and national politics is in a state of permanent “gridlock.”
Such a world should be fantastical enough for the wildest sort of dystopian fiction, for perhaps a novel titled 2014. What, after all, are we to make of a planet with a single superpower that lacks genuine enemies of any significance and that, to all appearances, has nonetheless been fighting a permanent global war with… well, itself — and appears to be losing?
Tom Engelhardt, 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 (recently published in a Kindle edition), 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.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt
But as my preamble reminded us, if Tom’s essay gets your emotions running, then turn back to yesterday’s post and put it all back into place!
More or less makes daily hassles irrelevant!
Now don’t misunderstand me. There are huge numbers of people on this planet who have challenges and issues that I can’t even imagine handling. But whatever we are dealing with, it is at a personal ‘size’ proportional to scale of our lives. For example, I have a guest post coming out tomorrow from Tom Engelhardt about the nature of the American Empire. Frankly, it’s more than disturbing. But, or should I write that as BUT, it is about matters that are trivial and inconsequential in the larger scheme of things.
All of which is a little introduction to a YouTube link that Suzann sent me; the video below. It’s just about 2 1/2 minutes long, yet is incredible. Plus it has already been watched over 9 million times!