Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why doesn't more communication translate into greater consensus about the world's problems?

On the surface one would think that the revolutionary advances in worldwide communications--made possible first by the telegraph, then by the telephone, the radio, the television and now by the Internet--would lead to a broad consensus on such issues as climate change and resource depletion. Almost everyone now has nearly instant access to the latest scientific information on these issues. Yet, no consensus has emerged, at least not one strong enough to bring about definitive action.

Some people point to the enormous sums spent by the fossil fuel industry to confuse the public about the causes and consequences of climate change and about the future availability of fossil fuels. This is certainly a very big factor. Polls show that the American public's acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change has declined in recent years coincident with a very strong propaganda push by the industry (though that acceptance has rebounded recently as record summer heat has changed some minds back). When it comes to energy supplies, industry television ads currently fill the airways in America with claims of 100 years of natural gas. This is despite that fact that the latest government estimates of future U.S. natural gas supplies have been dramatically slashed.

But I want to get at why people are susceptible to such manipulation in the first place. After all, the truth about climate change is now available practically worldwide to anyone who has a computer or even access to a library. And, the figures on oil production, which has been flat since 2005, are available from official government websites.

The answer starts with the issue of complexity. Issues such as climate change and resource depletion are really a complex set of interconnected issues that include population, per capita consumption, geology, climate science, infrastructure, technology, ideology, politics, economics, and, well, you get the idea. Even very intelligent, committed people have a hard time keeping up with and understanding the information available. In addition, climate change and resource depletion tend to be abstract and not subject to verification by the average individual. Simple observation on any given day cannot tell you whether the climate is changing or whether critical resources are being depleted.

All this makes it easy to send misleading and false messages to the public about these issues since the recipients have little information from direct observation to go on. Instead, because much of the public cannot grasp these issues or sense them as problems in their everyday lives, they are susceptible to appeals that activists aren't really concerned about those issues; rather, their agenda is to control somehow the lives of others through government regulation and taxation. It's never explained exactly why activists would want to do this for its own sake since the taxes and regulation would hit them as well. But this twin threat is a potent one in the American psyche in particular. (Oddly, those who push intrusive surveillance of the public, the destruction of civil liberties and privacy in the name of protecting us from terrorism, and the borrowing of trillions of dollars to finance wars based on false premises don't seem to warrant the same concern. Nor do large corporations which control so much of our lives.)

There is, of course, the natural human prejudice that the future will pretty much look like the recent past though history tells us that change, sometimes rapid, catastrophic change, can occur when it is least expected. (Of course, you would have to read history to know this.) And, that's why appeals to technological solutions work particularly well. For some reason, people generally readily dismiss the ill and unintended effects of technology and believe that all future technology will be free of side effects. One reason could be the almost miraculous power that technology has made available to the individual in the areas of communication, transport, and even weapons. Power, of course, doesn't mean no side effects, but it tends to obscure the downside of our technology.

The feeling among the populace is generally that there is no problem that technology cannot solve. Now, think about what it would take to explain why relying on technological advances alone is a risky course. You would be forced to deal with complexity after complexity.

So, if it's not the availability of information and communication that brings about consensus, what does? Let me suggest that it is the confluence of values that makes consensus possible. Where values converge even if methods don't, there is a chance to find consensus. The idea that one could increase control over one's life through localized energy sources, for instance, might be a good place to start. Bringing control closer to home has been one of the major driving forces behind the local food movement. It is, of course, not less complex for the individual to reassert control over his or her life. New skills such a growing food and new ways of cooperating such as community gardens and community-based power require more involvement, not less.

Letting a corporation handle all the complexity for us at the grocery store and the electric generating plant doesn't reduce overall complexity in society; it merely shifts it to someone else and makes us more subject to the other person's or organization's agenda and weaknesses.

We shouldn't abandon the search for effective communication strategies. We need to find better ones. But we should couple our search with a search for common values that can pave the way to consensus. With that focus our vast instantaneous worldwide communications system could then become a far better ally in addressing the major issues of our time.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Is solidarity a thing of the past?

Political commentators in the United States have long puzzled over the phenomenon of lower- and middle-class voters voting against their own obvious interests, primarily their economic interests. Many explanations have been offered. Certainly, the political propaganda disseminated by the rich through the media which they own and through the political discourse which they now direct through campaign contributions and unfettered campaign advertising is one cause.

In particular, the inherent cultural conservatism of many in the middle and lower classes has made them susceptible to messages emphasizing issues such as abortion; immigration; the role of religion in government, particularly in public schools; and the corrupting effects of a sexually promiscuous culture. Political elites know these issues will attract votes even if those same elites have no intention of doing much about the issues. These issues, however, remain potent ways to get people to vote unknowingly for economic policies that have redistributed vast sums of wealth upward in American society. This redistribution has been done through 1) low tax rates on high incomes resulting in vast deficit spending leading to the issuance of government bonds purchased primarily by the rich who then receive interest from America's middle- and lower-class taxpayers instead of having to pay taxes that would lower the deficit and 2) through the deregulation of industry, particularly of the financial industry in ways that have allowed vast fraud to be perpetrated on the public, for example, by the mortgage industry.

All of this has become exceedingly obvious since the crash of 2008. And yet, the public has failed to band together effectively to put an end to it. Why is this so? I do not propose a comprehensive explanation here, but rather I will outline what I believe is a neglected and central reason for the lack of solidarity among America's middle- and lower-class voters on economic and other issues. The explanation comes from William Catton Jr., author of Bottleneck, who also wrote a classic book on human ecology entitled Overshoot.

In Bottleneck Catton explains that the late 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim believed that the division of labor in society which resulted in heightened interdependence among humans also led inevitably to greater solidarity. Catton counters with the views of American sociologist E. A. Ross who believed that that same interdependence was leading to far more vulnerability among humans to predatory behavior from other humans. Catton leans toward Ross's view for a very important reason: Humans now labor in narrow occupational niches within our highly complex society in the same way that species occupy ecological niches in nature. This specialization leads to competition within each niche for the limited number of positions available.

Consequently, the harder the economic times, the more intense the competition for the reduced number of positions within each niche. This leads to anxiety among those already holding a job since they are often not skilled enough to find work in other niches. The employee often asks himself or herself, "What could I possibly do if I were no longer able to do this kind of work?" Naturally, this concern also creates anxiety among those who are unemployed and seeking jobs within a particular niche.

So, it is no wonder that those in the middle and lower strata of society have a difficult time joining together for common action when they are daily locked in a struggle over keeping or getting jobs in their respective niches. This competition becomes especially acute in the United States where access to health care services, pension programs and other social benefits are largely dependent on having a job and thus add to each job holder's and job seeker's worries.

It makes sense then that in European nations which have generous universal services available at little or no cost, middle- and lower-class people are less afraid to band together when they feel their position in society threatened by elites. This is in part because basic income support, health care and other services are available with or without a job. The French, in particular, have long been notable for their general strikes and other work stoppages and protests that have frequently caused the French government either to give up on planned changes adversely affecting working people or reverse changes already made.

It also makes sense that wealthy elites in the United States largely oppose the expansion of social benefits such as health care. These benefits would tend to make it easier for middle- and lower-class people to find solidarity because competitive pressure to seek a job to obtain them would be reduced. I am reminded of the American Liberty League formed during the Great Depression to oppose President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The league drew from the cream of America's corporations. Some of the members even said publicly that reduced wages resulting from economic contraction would improve discipline and character among America's workers--code words for preventing any substantial solidarity from arising among the lower classes.

Catton believes, however, that the competition among individuals in occupational niches in modern industrial society cannot be eliminated. The division of labor which has made the growth in population and the power of modern civilization possible will also be its undoing. He believes the division of labor will continue to increase alienation and predation among and between humans. And, that will make it difficult to gain consensus to act decisively in the face of the urgent challenges of climate change, resource depletion, pollution, soil degradation and the myriad problems which threaten humankind.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Can we bear the legacy costs of industrial society's toxic pollution?

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) stunned the nuclear industry last week by putting power plant licensing decisions on hold while it reconsiders rules on nuclear waste storage struck down by a federal appeals court in June. At issue is the NRC's 2010 ruling that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored on a plant site for 60 years after the closing of the plant. The question is whether that ruling will withstand the scrutiny inherent in a full environmental impact statement that the court says is required by law.

The issue is part of the much larger and troubling question about the legacy costs--economic, social and environmental--of toxic industrial pollution that are mounting with each day. We'd like to think that we can simply take our industrial wastes and throw them away somewhere. But increasingly, in what economist Herman Daly calls our "full world," (PDF) there is no "away." Hazardous wastes that we thought we could safely sequester deep in the Earth via injection wells are already coming back to haunt us.

If wells drilled to date for hazardous waste disposal are already poisoning drinking water, what will be the consequences of drilling hundreds of thousands of additional oil and natural gas wells around the world into newly accessible shale deposits--a process that involves injecting millions of gallons of toxic, chemically-laced water into each well to fracture the shale and thereby gain access to the hydrocarbons? The evidence is not reassuring. And, in any case, the well casings, which are meant to protect seepage into groundwater, will in the long run (hundreds of years) simply deteriorate. Those of us alive today will be long gone when our descendents must deal with widespread groundwater pollution that may render many places around the world uninhabitable.

But even if we believe that our modern technical society will survive the effects of climate change and resource depletion, the legacy costs of cleaning up our drinking water, both in terms of energy and money, are likely to outweigh by far the seeming benefits we are currently getting from drilling deep shale layers for oil and natural gas. The legacy costs associated with storing and guarding nuclear waste may continue for thousands and even tens of thousands of years, a period potentially much longer than the entire span from the beginning of agriculture and settled life to today. In that period, many civilizations have come and gone. Do we really expect ours to maintain its stability for tens of thousands of years?

The answer is that we almost never think in these terms. We are now engaged in a dangerous and morally bankrupt can-kicking exercise, hoping to put off the worst effects our waste-handling practices until we are gone and someone else has to deal with the problems we've created. A friend once related that a scientist she knows said that more than climate change, more than population growth, and more than resource depletion, he fears the toxic wastes we've dumped into the environment and those which are still stored at industrial sites including nuclear power plants. He said these wastes have the potential to do more damage to life on earth than all other hazards combined.

While that assessment may or may not be correct, it does offer a perspective that would be useful for us to ponder. What if we survive as a species far into the future, but lack the means--financial, technical, or organizational--to contain those wastes? Given our record to date, that question by itself should caution against an optimistic assessment of whether we can bear the legacy costs of industrial society's toxic pollution.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

How cascading failures in the global finance system could mean TEOTWAWKI

I've met David Korowicz, and he is a thoughtful, deeply knowledgeable, highly analytical, caring man who worries that the global system we now labor under is headed for what might be called the ultimate crash. To Korowicz, a physicist turned risk consultant, that system resembles nothing so much as a house of cards waiting to be blown down by the next financial hurricane that comes its way.

The system's interlocking intricacies make it vulnerable not only to severe disturbance, but also to cascading failures that might end in a system unable to recover its former complexity and global reach, in other words, TEOTWAWKI. (For those who didn't get the memo, TEOTWAWKI stands for "the end of the world as we know it.")

Korowicz rightly depicts our global system, financial and logistical, as extremely complex, but not so complex that he cannot understand it enough to predict a disaster of unprecedented proportions sometime this decade. He acknowledges the remarkable resilience and self-healing our current global system has shown in the face of repeated insults in the last several decades, especially the crash of 2008. But, in a new report he outlines why he believes that that resilience has been significantly eroded and may well be tested to the breaking point in the next several years.

It comes down to this:

  1. Complex interdependencies mean that a few critical points of failure could bring down the entire global system. Korowicz focuses on the banking system in which power and money have become highly concentrated. Reliable payment systems are what make worldwide trade and logistics possible. If trust in those systems breaks down (as it did at the end of 2008) and can't be restored, that's it for the global trading system. He cites other systems as well including our system of industrial production in which the just-in-time inventory model has been so broadly implemented that manufacturing and many services can grind to a halt within only a few says of a supply disruption.

  2. Historically unprecedented indebtedness among households, businesses and governments has caused private credit creation, on which the growth of the global economy depends, to sputter. Those who can borrow don't want to for fear that the economy may continue to be sluggish, threatening their jobs or businesses. Those who are too indebted to borrow more are focused on repaying debt or simply deciding to default. We are in a debt deflation that threatens the very stability of the worldwide financial system which is exposed to so many bad or potentially bad loans.

  3. With interest rates near zero in much of the world and governments overloaded with debt taken on from failing sectors of the economy, mostly banks and housing, there is little flexibility for policy action if another severe shock hits the global economy as Korowicz expects.

  4. Our current system is now structured to respond not proportionally to any shock, but with increasing acceleration and with consequences that seem outsized given the initial insult. Think Greece.

  5. The economic models that policymakers are using are based on very narrow conditions experienced since the end of World War II and don't take into account the extreme stresses now evident in the world economy. Such models have so far failed to explain the severity of the crash (which they did not anticipate) and the persistence of a subpar recovery despite historically unprecedented stimulus, both fiscal and monetary. Nor have these models resulted in policies that have effectively addressed the fragility of both the financial and physical economy.

  6. Previous shocks--the Asian crisis of 1997, the Argentine collapse, Japan's long slump--have all been in the context a functioning world economy, strong elsewhere and able to give a lift to the countries battered by financial collapse or stuck in economic malaise. The next big crisis, Korowicz believes, may envelope the entire global economy or enough of it so that there will be no stable center that affected countries can rely on to trade with as they repair their economies.

  7. Resource constraints, particularly an evident plateau in the worldwide rate of oil production from 2005 onward, is challenging the growth paradigm upon which all of our major systems are premised. These systems, financial and otherwise, are designed to be stable under conditions of persistent growth. Without that growth, their stability is unlikely to hold up. One example is the banking and credit system that depends on consistent economic growth to allow repayment of loans. That growth in turn depends on expanding energy supplies crucial to economic activity.

Perhaps the most disturbing conclusion Korowicz comes to is that the kind of collapse he envisions will not be reversible. Too much of the world's critical infrastructure, both public and private (industrial), will be impaired by lengthy shutdowns. Faith in payment systems will be gone and impossible to revive. Many businesses will simply shut down for lack of funds or customers and not be around to restart if conditions improve. Essentially, there is a point of no return that could put the world economy into a new equilibrium that is far less networked and global than it is today and from which it will be all but impossible to return.

This is the reason, of course, why government officials have made herculean efforts (with public money, of course) to keep the world's financial system going. But they have only given it stimulants, when what is needed is surgery. Naturally, those who control both the financial system and the politicians who regulate it are resisting that surgery since it would make them less rich (even if it would save them and us by making the system more stable).

Hence, Korowicz writes: "Our immediate concern is crisis and shock planning. It should now be clear that this is far more extensive than merely focussing on the financial system. It includes how we might move forward if a reversion to current conditions proves impossible." While he doesn't offer a set of responses in this paper, he promises to discuss them in his future writings.

While much of Korowicz's analysis is compelling and nuanced, I can't help but think he is overestimating the possibility of a wrenching collapse. I am reminded of a piece of artwork I saw recently at a gallery that was a representation of a house of cards--only the cards were stamped out of relatively thick plates of metal and securely attached to one another. From a distance it looked like a house of cards, and it was called a house of cards. But it did not, in fact, act like a house of cards.

And, so I think our modern complex system can be endlessly analyzed and shown to have frightening vulnerabilities. Our current global system looks to a thoughtful person like a house of cards. Now, I am willing to admit that even the sturdily built facsimile which I examined at the gallery could eventually be struck, rattled, cut, burned (with a torch perhaps), or otherwise have its integrity undermined. As a species we certainly seem be doing all we can to undermine the systems upon which we depend. So, I think it is possible that one day Korowicz's vision may indeed come true.

But the global system has shown both its vulnerabilities and its resilience. The people who rely on it--rich and powerful people--have not and will not sit still and do nothing as successive shocks from financial panic or resource depletion or war threaten its integrity. These people will fight and probably succeed at averting a total collapse in the medium term. That's what happened in late 2008 and early 2009. And, that's what will likely happen many times more as the vaunted global system stairsteps its way to lower complexity.

And, that process will have people telling us at each step of the way down (toward lower complexity) that things will return to "normal" any day now if we are just patient and have faith. That will frustrate those of us who believe rapid transformation is inevitable and that we would do well to plan for it. But, don't look for that frustration to abate anytime soon.


Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.