Sunday, October 30, 2016

Howard Odum, transformities and the urban/rural divide in America

It's hard not to see the urban/rural divide in the United States--unless you just don't look. Perhaps the most iconic image representing that divide is a map of presidential election results by county. The map below is from 2012.

RED = Romney (Republican) BLUE = Obama (Democrat)

Most of the land area of the United States represents Republican territory. But, of course, dense urban areas taking up much less land, but having far more voters per square mile, proved decisive for the incumbant Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.

It might seem that this is merely a cultural divide, hicks versus city slickers. But it is also an economic divide. Rural areas have been pummeled economically by the globalizing economy. That economy rewards the innovations and technology invented and deployed in cities more than the commodities that come out of the countryside. Hidden beneath these cultural and economic factors is an energy imbalance that Howard Odum, the great pioneer in understanding energy flows in nature and society, first identified in his work on what he called transformities.

Let me quote from a previous piece of mine in which I explain transformities:

To read the chart below one must know that Odum turned all measurements into equivalent calories of solar energy which he dubbed solar emcalories. Concentration of emcalories leads to their greater and greater usefulness to human society. Diffuse sunlight on a field only warms a person for as long as the sun shines. But the energy concentrated in field crops can be stored until needed for food or fuel. Such is the role of what Odum calls transformities, that is, the transformation of previously concentrated energy into more concentrated, more energy-intense forms. Transforming fossil fuels into electricity is another example.
Adapted from "A Prosperous Way Down" by Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum

Solar Emcalories Needed Per Calorie Produced
Sunlight energy
Wind energy
Organic matter, wood, soil
Potential of elevated rainwater
Chemical energy of rainwater
Mechanical energy
Large river energy
Fossil fuels
Electric power
Protein foods
Human services
1 X 1011
Species Formation
1 X 1015

Transformities reveal the amount of energy embodied in things central to the well-being of human societies. Rural areas have long been servants to cities which simply do not have the land area to provide all their needs. Rural areas essentially concentrate the sunlight in the form of crops before shipping them off to cities.

The problem for rural producers is that they do not get all the value which is embodied in the things they grow. They especially do not get credit for the concentration of energy. Most of that valuable work is done for free by nature. But, the farmer typically receives only the cost of inputs and perhaps a small profit to grow and deliver crops for further processing, mostly to cities. Sometimes the farmer gets paid less than the cost of inputs, selling at a loss.

Cities add value to those crops by milling, cooking, combining, and packaging, in short, by creating foods for the marketplace. Those foods are then shipped not only to city residents, but also back to rural residents and with a significant markup for the value added.

The marketplace assigns a far higher value to the value added by urban workers than that added by farmers (due in part to the energy component of the value added). This accounts for the higher incomes of city dwellers and for the perennial economic imbalance between city and countryside.

The same is true for mining. Though some miners and landowners strike it rich, they do so because nature has done practically all the work for them by concentrating minerals in deposits accessible to humans (and often because prevailing legal and social arrangements allow them to claim the minerals as their own property). Again, most of the value added is done by refiners and then manufacturers who fashion the minerals into products--and then sell some of them back to the miners and landowners.

Miners and other owners of minerals can face the same economic deprivation as farmers do. Although we don't often think of oil as a mineral, it is--though the means to mine it are different from those used to mine copper and zinc. The boom experienced by such places as North Dakota and Texas when oil prices were high has been followed by a punishing bust brought on by a price collapse. City dwellers don't much care whether oil producers are being paid enough to cover their costs. In fact, these city dwellers rejoice when fuel prices fall.

Of course, most of the value added to oil comes from refining it into the products we require such as gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and heating oil. Integrated oil companies reap some of this reward while companies that focus only on exploration and development do not. And, of course, major refineries--and the jobs and taxes that go with them--are near their greatest concentration of customers, namely, cities.

There is one very important difference today from the past regarding the urban/rural divide. In the past, the vast majority of humans lived on farms; only a tiny minority lived in cities. Today, the productivity of modern farming techniques has shrunk the ranks of farmers in the United States to about 3.2 million in a country of 324 million or about one percent.

Mining has never employed a large percentage of the population, but even that percentage has fallen as huge machines have taken over tasks once performed by miners with pick axes.

The urban population of the United States now accounts for more than 80 percent of the total U.S. population. Rural residents have long ceded much of their economic power to cities--something that has been true from the beginning of civilization. But, rural residents who used to constitute a large majority are now vastly outnumbered, and their political power is seriously diminished.

It is no wonder that rural populations are feeling ignored and even threatened. It is harder and harder to make a living in rural locations. And, with the advent of 24/7 communications, it is harder and harder to maintain a rural culture that is distinct from that of most cities. Rural populations face a double attack on both their livelihoods and their "way of life."

Redressing the imbalance between city and countryside could take the form of investing in value-added processes closer to farms and mines. That would require huge capital investments. Small-scale investments have already allowed some farms to expand operations to process and package their own products for sale.

Perhaps just as important would be a rise in public investment in rural communities, the tax bases of which have been eroded by the exodus of industry and people. Though Republicans know how to speak to the cultural anxieties of those in rural communities, both major U.S. political parties have de facto adopted the view that the decline of rural life is an inevitable result of globalization, and that there is little anyone can or should do about it.

Therein lies an opportunity for the political party that awakens to the upside inherent in once again embracing rural lives and livelihoods as important to the country as a whole.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Campaign melodrama: As the world burns

In the melodrama that passes for the U.S. presidential campaign, Donald Trump got practically all the post-debate headlines last week when he hedged on whether he would accept the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. But for those most concerned about genuine sustainability, what both candidates agreed on should be far more troubling. And yet, it elicits nothing more than a yawn these days in political discourse.

The candidates agreed that the U.S. economy needs to grow more rapidly. What they argued over is whose economic plan will make it grow faster.

The push for economic growth has become sacrosanct in modern political discourse. Growth is the elixir that heals all social and economic divisions and makes possible the solidarity that comes from the feeling that the path to wealth is open to everyone.

For the vast majority of people on the planet that path was never really open. And, since the so-called Great Recession, it has been closed off completely for all but those at the top of the income scale.

There are many explanations. But most of them are financial and political. The world's economists and political leaders are ready with both diagnoses and prescriptions for lackluster growth throughout the world. However, the laws of physics, chemistry and biology never enter their heads.

Growth is supposedly something that comes from the "minds of men." (Pardon me, women, for it is men who mostly say this.) While there is truth to the idea that the cleverness of humans has accounted in part for the astonishing growth of the world economy in the last three centuries, it is more true that humans have leveraged increasingly available fossil fuel energy to achieve that growth.

Without fossil fuels, we as a species would not appear so clever. And we must keep in mind that we did not invent coal, natural gas or oil. In fact, our extraction and use of them more closely resembles the pattern of a hunter-gatherer society than of a modern agricultural one.

We know that on our current growth trajectory we will cause irreparable damage to the climate and the biosphere upon which we depend. The hope is that somehow we can prevent this damage with technology that won't require giving up on economic growth. While anything is possible, the odds are stacked gravely against such an outcome.

We are pursuing incommensurable goals by saying that we must lift all those still in poverty out of it--with little or no redistribution of wealth--while preserving the biosphere and the climate. We are not taking the second part of this proposition seriously or we would understand that the first part--under current definitions of wealth (meaning increased use of energy and resources)--will necessarily destroy the world in which we hope to enjoy this wealth.

Some may say that this is not a sure thing, that we can't really know this. In a very narrow sense, they are right. If only the risks were trivial, we could wait to see. But the risks are monumental and, in fact, existential. Under such circumstances, we should not ask for absolute certainty, but rather inquire about the weight of the evidence from our observations and the models of Earth systems as we understand them.

However imperfect our understanding, the evidence and models are all flashing major warning signs. This is not a one-alarm fire; this is a million-alarm fire. We have vast areas of agreement from disparate disciplines that something is seriously wrong with planet Earth from the coral reefs all the way up to the ozone layer in the stratosphere.

We are too many people consuming too much per person and creating waste in the form of greenhouse gases that are overwhelming the Earth's natural thermostat. The solution to our problems cannot be to do more of the same.

And yet, that is precisely what both major U.S. presidential candidates champion. It is, of course, political suicide to propose a downsizing of American life to something commensurate with the survival of advanced human societies. Such a downsizing would have to coincide with much greater redistribution of existing wealth in order to insure social peace--which is why politicians of all kinds avoid the issue.

Yet, the issue remains, and from here on out it can be framed as follows: Will ignoring the imperative to redefine completely what makes our lives good--that is, beyond more resources--lead to suicide that is of an entirely different order?

In the past we've had the luxury of pretending that we could grow our economy forever. We don't have that luxury any more. Continued exponential growth will extract heavy costs. In fact, it already has.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Deepwater Horizon and our emerging 'normal' catastrophes

While watching the recently released film "Deepwater Horizon" about the catastrophic well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that caused the largest oil spill in U.S. history, I remembered the term "fail-dangerous," a term I first encountered in correspondence with a risk consultant for the oil and gas industry.

We've all heard the term "fail-safe" before. Fail-safe systems are designed to shut down benignly in case of failure. Fail-dangerous systems include airliners which don't merely halt in place benignly when their engines fail, but crash on the ground in a ball of fire.

For fail-dangerous systems, we believe that failure is either unlikely or that the redundancy that we've build into the system will be sufficient to avert failure or at least minimize damage. Hence, the large amount of money spent on airline safety. This all seems very rational.

But in a highly complex technical society made up of highly complex subsystems such as the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, we should not be so sanguine about our ability to judge risk. On the day the offshore rig blew up, executives from both oil giant BP and Transocean (which owned and operated the rig on behalf of BP) were aboard to celebrate seven years without a lost time incident, an exemplary record. They assumed that this record was the product of vigilance rather than luck.

And, contrary to what the film portrays, the Deepwater Horizon disaster was years in the making as BP and Transocean created a culture that normalized behaviors and decision-making which brought about not an unavoidable tragedy, but rather what is now termed a "normal accident"--a product of normal decisions by people who were following accepted procedures and routines.

Today, we live in a society full of "normal accidents" waiting to happen that will be far more catastrophic than the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. One of those "accidents" is already in progress, and it's called climate change.

People in societies around the globe are doing what they are supposed to be doing, what they routinely do, to stay alive, produce and enjoy what they produce. They do not think of themselves as doing something which is bringing about the biggest "accident" of our time, climate change. No one set out to change the climate. And yet, this is the result of our normalized behavior.

Climate change still appears to many to be building slowly. This summer was hotter than last summer and the one before that. But we've coped. We stay inside in air-conditioning on especially hot days--ironically so, as the fossil fuels making the electricity for the air-conditioner are adding to the warming itself.

It is as if we are all on the Deepwater Horizon just doing our jobs. We notice there are a few things wrong. But, we've dealt with them before, and we can deal with them again. The failures and the breakdowns are accepted as just part of how we do business. And we've managed to avoid anything truly bad up to now. So, we conclude, we must be doing things safely.

Part of the normalization of our response to climate change is the spread of renewable power sources. I have long supported the rapid deployment of renewable power, suggesting that we need the equivalent of a warlike footing to deploy enough to bring about serious declines in fossil fuel use. And, while renewable energy is growing by leaps and bounds, it is not growing nearly fast enough to meet the challenges of climate change.

And yet, society at large has relaxed into the idea--promoted by the industry--that renewable energy is well on its way to creating a renewable energy society despite the fact that more than 80 percent of our energy still comes from fossil fuels. We have normalized this response as adequate in the public mind. There remains no generalized alarm about climate change.

Certainly, there are scientists, activists and others who are genuinely alarmed and believe we are not moving nearly fast enough. But this alarm has not translated into aggressive policy responses.

The argument that things have worked just fine in the past so there is no reason to believe they won't work out in the future is a well-worn one. And, it seems to be valid because so many people say it is. (Steven Colbert might even say that this assertion has a certain "truthiness" to it.)

But there is a reason that financial prospectuses say that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Likewise, no bad accidents in the past are not a guarantee of no bad accidents in the future. It is in the structure of how we behave that the risks build. The tipping point finally reveals that we have been doing risky things all along.

If you play Russian roulette with a gun having 100 chambers, you won't think that skill had anything to do with the fact that you aren't dead after five pulls. But if you don't know you are playing Russian roulette (hidden dangers with hidden connections), then the fact that you aren't dead after 50 pulls (50 repetitions of the hidden dangerous conduct) won't seem like luck, but simply the result of sound procedure.

Climate change, of course, isn't the only place where we have normalized procedures which appear to be reducing risk, when, in fact, we are increasing it. Our monocrop farms and the small variety of major crops grown on them using modern industrial farming methods are supposed to reduce the risk of major crop losses and thus of famine. In fact, these methods are depleting the soil and undermining its fertility in ways that will ultimately lower farm productivity. And monocrop farming is an invitation to widespread crop loss. Polyculture tends to prevent the spread of devastating plant diseases while monoculture tends to promote that spread.

We can talk about the normalization of industrial fishing as well. It is designed to increase our harvest of food to feed growing human populations thereby reducing our risk of food shortages and giving us another source of nutrition. In fact, industrial fishing practices are threatening the viability of practically every fishery around the world.

In addition, temporarily cheap oil and natural gas are lulling us into a complacency about our energy supplies. Energy depletion that just two years ago seemed to be indicated by high prices is rarely discussed now. We are projecting the current moment into the future and believing that the rising energy price trend of the last 15 years is meaningless.

Practically everything we do to reduce risks to human populations now creates broader, longer term risks that could turn catastrophic. The Slate article linked above references the "high-reliability organization." Such organizations which seek to avoid catastrophic failures share certain common characteristics:

1) Preoccupation with failure: To avoid failure we must look for it and be sensitive to early signs of failure.
2) Reluctance to simplify: Labels and clich├ęs can stop one from looking further into the events.
3) Sensitivity to operations: Systems are not static and linear but rather dynamic and nonlinear in nature. As a result it becomes difficult to know how one area of the organization’s operations will act compared to another part.

For our global system as a whole to act like a high-reliability organization, we would have to turn away from technopian narratives that tell us we will always come up with a new technology that will solve our problems including climate change--while forcing us to change our lives very little.

Instead, we would anticipate and scan for possible failure, no matter how small, to give us warning about perils to our survival. There are plenty of signs flashing warnings to us, but we have not fully comprehended their gravity.

When it comes to energy supplies, we are often faced with the simplifying assertions as mentioned above that are designed to prevent us from examining the topic. People in the oil industry like to say that the "resource is huge." They don't tell you that "resource" simply refers to what is thought--on sketchy evidence--to be in the ground. What is actually available to us is a tiny fraction of the resource at today's prices and level of technology.

The effects of the recent bankruptcy of one of the world's largest ocean freight companies have given us a window into the outsized effects of a failure of just a small portion of our complex system of worldwide logistics.

If we had run our society as a high-reliability organization, we would have heeded warnings made decades ago. I like to tell people that the American public first learned that oil was a finite resource when Clark Gable told them so near the end of the 1940 film "Boom Town," a remarkable speech for the time.

American leadership found out that we would have to make a transition to a non-fossil fuel economy way back in 1954 in Harrison Brown's widely read The Challenge of Man's Future--and, that such a transition would be fraught with peril if not begun early enough.

Other warnings included Limits to Growth in 1972, a book widely misunderstood as predicting rather than modeling our predicament. More recently there was Jared Diamond's Collapse.

In general, what we as a society have chosen to do is to create narratives of invincibility, rather than heed these warnings. We are, in effect, normalizing highly risky behavior.

Perhaps our biggest failure is noted in item three above. We think of the world we live in as static and linear rather than dynamic and nonlinear. That has given us a false sense that things move gradually and predictably in our world, the same false sense that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, October 09, 2016

OPEC production cut: Just another Saudi head fake?

What do you do when everyone is bugging you to do something, but you don't want to do it? The simple answer is that you make it look like you are doing something in order to get others off your back.

It is not always easy to tell what people's intentions are. But we can look at what they have done in the past. The main thing that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has done over the past year in response to pressure from other OPEC members is talk about steps it would take to raise oil prices. But in the end the kingdom doesn't actually do them, or it does things which have no practical significance. (Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter, is the OPEC member with the greatest flexibility in its production. Any OPEC production cut without Saudi leadership would lack credibility.)

We should keep all this in mind when evaluating the latest reports that OPEC has agreed to cuts. Bloomberg tells us right up front that OPEC has merely agreed to the "outline of a deal" that will be taken up at its November meeting.

One of Saudi Arabia's partners in its yearlong public talkfest has been Russia, the number one or number two oil producer in the world depending on what month it is. The Russians said in early October 2015 that they were ready to discuss oil prices with OPEC. Later that month it was leaked that the Russians had no intention of cutting their own production. In late January of this year, the oil price catapulted after Russia's energy minister said he was "ready to meet with OPEC and Saudi Arabia to discuss a production cut," the Financial Times reported.

When the Russians did meet with Saudi Arabia and also with representatives from Qatar and Venezuela in late February, the group proposed a freeze in production, but no production cut. Only the uninitiated may be forgiven for not understanding that a freeze would change nothing. Oil production would simply continue at the current level, hardly a strategy to achieve higher prices.

In early March the Russians announced that their oil companies agreed to a freeze in production. In late March the Saudis announced that they, too, would be freezing production even if Iran would not commit to a similar freeze. The Iranians, of course, have been keen to get back into the export market in a major way after having been crippled by trade sanctions for years, sanctions which have been lifted in the wake of an international agreement governing Iran's nuclear program.

The stated intention of the Saudis and the Russians was to raise oil prices. But, given that the practical effect on production was zero, they must have had some other method in mind. One possibility is that they have been working together simply to jawbone the price of oil higher without having to reduce production. If that's the case, it seems to have worked reasonably well as all the announcements of meetings and rumors about what might happen at those meetings seem to have coincided roughly with a rising price.

It's also possible that the Saudi-Russian tag team has been trying to kill two birds with one stone. These producers might also have been seeking to keep market participants guessing about the future of prices so as to dampen investment in U.S. shale-based operations, operations which have helped to create an excess of oil on the market. Uncertainty breeds fear, and fear keeps investors away. By making periodic announcements about cuts and freezes followed by rumors or statements that undermine the original announcements, they are creating the requisite uncertainty.

In April OPEC and other producers discussed a freeze, and then the very next day failed to implement one. In mid-August, the Saudi oil minister was quoted as saying that OPEC members would consider "any possible action" at a meeting the following month. This rather mild statement was followed by a 4 percent rise in crude prices.

The record of Saudi announcements and actions suggests they are not serious. In fact, shortly after the recent announcement that OPEC would be cutting production, Saudi Arabia lowered prices for its crude, a move not consistent with its stated aims. The OPEC agreement to cut production, the first in eight years, may not actually deliver any results given that Iran is exempt, that a production range was adopted, and that OPEC members routinely cheat on quotas.

But, of course, the Saudis know all this. The question is whether they care. It turns out that the Saudis have not finished the job they set out to do, a job which few commentators have properly understood. The kingdom has been seeking not merely to lower the production of oil from U.S. shale deposits--a goal which they've already achieved--but also to cripple funding for new projects.

As oil hovers around $50 per barrel, investors continue to plow additional funds into shale drilling, particularly the Permian Basin in Texas. There may indeed be wells there that will be profitable at this level, but not an unlimited number. Other shale areas such as North Dakota have seen drilling activity slow to crawl.

What the Saudis want is for investment money to dry up. In order for that to happen investors in U.S. shale have to feel more pain--so much pain, in fact, that they won't be eager to jump in again even as prices rise.

That's why I don't believe the announced oil production cuts will ultimately have any noticeable effect on production--because I think the Saudis don't want them to. While some commentators contend that Saudi Arabia is surrendering in its war on shale, I believe the kingdom is merely giving everyone another head fake just as they and the Russians (and now the Algerians) have been doing all year.

They got a 5 percent bump in the oil price on the day of the recent production cut announcement and total of about 11.5 percent through Friday, October 7--all without actually cutting production by one barrel.* Now, that's a pretty effective head fake. What I can't figure out is why more people aren't on to this.


*The mechanism that explains this is that speculators and users tend to increase inventories ahead of anticipated price hikes, thus temporarily increasing demand for both physical and paper crude. That anticipation becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy as various actors in the market rush in together to add to their physical or paper positions.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Donald Trump and the impossible destination of globalism

In a recent column, The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman shows himself to be as good a spokesman for the world's elites (with whom he often communes) as anyone on Earth. He asks one simple question about Republican presidential candidate and billionaire real estate magnate Donald Trump: How?

Friedman's column-length answer is a catalogue of Trump's puzzling views about NATO and ISIS, his poor command of the major issues, his contradictory statements and his strange embrace of tax avoidance.

What's missing, of course, is the centerpiece of Trump's appeal: his criticism of major trade deals which have devastated entire industries in the United States and destroyed the middle-class jobs that go with them. To the defenders of globalism--and Friedman is one of globalism's fiercest defenders--Trump's criticism is nothing short of heresy.

But the billionaire's bluster embodies the anger that people affected by those deals feel every day. Not a few of them have previously been consistent Democratic voters. Of course, there are plenty of Republicans who are voting for Trump because he is the party's candidate. And, there are plenty of evangelicals and so-called "values voters" supporting him (despite his profligate ways) because his party has traditionally opposed abortion, supported prayer in schools, and fought same-sex marriage.

But disaffected, downwardly mobile American workers are the ones keeping the race very close, a race that few thought would ever be close just a few weeks ago. So strong is the fear of globalism and all that it represents among a certain class of Trump supporters that they readily dismiss mainstream media critiques of his fitness for office and his understanding of policy. Those supporters want to protect what little they have left. And, some want to go back to retrieve what they and their communities--often small and rural ones--have lost to the globalist onslaught in the last two decades. In this desire they are not being irrational.

Now here's the dirty secret about the top four U.S. presidential candidates who regularly appear in national polls. None of them actually rejects globalism. (I'll come back to this later.) At this point I'm finally obliged to say what I mean by the amorphous term "globalism." A friend recently put it into historical perspective and included the resource angle that regular readers must have already suspected I would mention.

With the discovery and then exploitation of fossil fuels on an ever growing scale, societies everywhere were faced with figuring out how to govern a world with ever increasing energy surpluses. Those surpluses made so many new things possible and in doing so led to rapid social and technological change.

We tried laissez-faire capitalism, communism, fascism, democratic socialism and finally globalism which I'll define as the management of worldwide economic activity and growth by large multi-national corporations which have no particular allegiance to any one country or people. Our belief has been that this arrangement is the most rational and efficient. Therefore, trade deals which bring down barriers both to international trade and to the movement of capital and technology across borders are believed to encourage global economic growth. That growth supposedly will ultimately lift the world's poor into the middle class and enrich everyone else while doing it.

Around the time that the fall of communism made possible the uniting of the world's economies into one great global system, we were also discovering that this system was doomed to failure for environmental reasons. Climate scientist James Hansen's testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1988 presaged the many "thousand-year floods" which are hitting the United States and other places around the world, and that is just one of the many emerging and dangerous consequences of climate change. And, climate change is just one of a thicket of interrelated threats including resource depletion, pollution and overuse of groundwater, ocean pollution, overfishing, soil degradation, and toxic pollutants in the air, water and soil.

Contrary to what the apologists for globalism suggest, scale actually matters. One million humans living as we do today would not likely undermine the habitability of the planet, for humans at least. When 7 billion live in this way, our combined effect has made us the dominant force on the planet so much so that we have created a new geologic age named after us: the Anthropocene.

It is now clear that globalism as an engine for an ever growing world economy will lead to catastrophic climate change and other untoward results that will destroy the underpinnings of modern society. In other words, globalism is a suicide pact.

The idea that we can expand globalism to any size we choose was discredited long before now. One version of this fantasy was that the Earth would be able to accommodate U.S.-style consumerism worldwide. But we know that if all residents of the planet consumed like Americans, we would need four Earths to sustain them. Therefore, the destination offered by globalism no longer features prosperity and stability for all, but a ruinous decline. And yet, our politics and our public discourse speak as if we can still go there.

Trump in his rejection of current trade treaties is saying that we need to go back to something else. He says he wants to "make America great again," which, of course, means America's greatness is somewhere in the past. As another friend quipped, implied in Trump's platform is the idea that we can get into a time machine and go back to a past that is more to our liking.

So, it's no surprise that Trump's critics are saying he is backward-looking. The future, those critics say, is an ever more connected global society. But, in such a discussion we are left with only two destinations: We can try to go back to a past which we cannot hope to reconstruct and which, even if we could, would send us in a direction which is considered the opposite of progress.

Or, we can go forward toward globalism's dream of a connected worldwide sphere of material prosperity (and the inevitable ruin this trajectory implies). In our broad public discourse there is no third non-globalism destination for which we have a description and a justification because any such attempt at describing that destination is labeled backward-looking, as merely going back to the past. And, who wants to be accused of that? The accusation tends to end the discussion.

In truth, Trump is not actually proposing a retrograde movement. He merely proposes to renegotiate America's trade deals. That means he embraces the globalist system whether he admits it or not. Hillary Clinton has now said she will oppose the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. And, she has supposedly told one union leader she will reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement. She, too, continues to embrace globalism, merely wishing to alter its terms.

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson wants to lay the groundwork for "massive job growth across the entire country." He believes in reducing regulation to encourage that growth. And, he believes in free trade which is a codeword for embracing globalism.

Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, has a lot in her platform that working people should like. But her call for increased spending on renewable energy, drastic cuts in defense spending and broader protection of human rights probably won't go down well with many whites whose jobs depend on the old fossil-fuel-burning industrial economy, who think military spending is synonymous with security, and who perceive non-whites as competitors in the job market.

Like Trump, Stein would replace current trade deals with new ones that are "fair." Again, we have no explicit rejection of globalism as a system. We will somehow survive that system if only we embrace the "Green New Deal" plan which she proposes.

Bernie Sanders, Clinton's opponent in the Democratic primary, sounds a lot like Stein. He would mitigate the worst aspects of globalism without really challenging its legitimacy. But Sanders did something which Clinton by temperament could not or by choice would not do. Like Trump, Sanders embodied the anger of those injured by globalism.

This is why he consistently polled higher than Clinton in one-to-one matchups with Trump. (Compare Sanders' and Clinton's polling numbers.) Sanders was the candidate who not only displayed his anger at globalism, but also (unlike Trump) had a detailed plan for addressing it. That plan appealed to many Trump voters who could not register that appeal when asked about a Clinton-Trump matchup. But they could register their approval when asked about a Sanders-Trump contest, and they account for Sanders' runaway margins in polls which show him attracting voters who would otherwise support Trump in a contest with Clinton.

It would be political suicide for any serious candidate for the presidency of the United States to announce that economic growth as we know it is over and that we will have to organize our society based on other principles. Just what those principles might be has been articulated by such people as Herman Daly, the dean of the steady-state economists. But then, Daly isn't running for anything.

Even though the idea of a steady-state economy may seem utterly foreign to us after 200 years of unprecedented economic growth, it has become a lived reality for many since even before the 2008 financial crash.

Critical to how we proceed is to understand what is actually slowing down economic growth. Climate change will certainly over time become a huge detriment to economic activity and, if unchecked, is likely to disrupt our modern technical society to such a degree (particularly when it comes to growing food) that it will not survive intact.

Many of the theories about slow growth revolve around financial and demographic constraints. What needs to become part of the discussion are energy limits (see here and here) and pollution limits, particularly on greenhouse gases.

We are now waiting for our politics to catch up to this reality. Donald Trump, the exit of Great Britain from the European Union, and threat of exit by movements in Italy, Greece and Spain, all point to the same problem. Globalism as a system has no future. The pain it has inflicted so far has been on the middle and lower classes. At some point, that pain will spread to the highest reaches of society. Will we have to wait for that in order to get definitive movement toward a third destination?

Jared Diamond in his book Collapse pondered our predicament. Elites in past societies that have collapsed insulated themselves from the consequences of environmental and resource constraints so that they perceived no need for drastic changes.

If Thomas Friedman's column represents the thinking of today's elites, then they are truly well-insulated. Even Friedman who is more broadly informed and nuanced in his thinking shows how he himself is insulated when he writes that "income gaps are actually narrowing, wages are rising and poverty is easing." A minor beneficial move in the statistics after so many years of moves in the opposite direction is hardly the stuff that matters to people who are hurting.

The elites and Friedman can't understand Trump's appeal because they don't have much contact with those who are suffering from globalism's many side-effects. Whether or not Trump actually understands those injured by globalism, he successfully embodies their rage. And, it is that rage which is propelling his campaign to the amazement of elites out of touch with America's middle and lower classes.

Unfortunately, the answer to globalism's dead end cannot be found in the current U.S. presidential campaign. But the loud cries of its victims are audible to all those who are willing to hear them. And those victims may end up deciding who will be America's next president.


P.S. I am indebted to Bruno Latour, the French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist of science for his recent lecture "Why Gaia is not the Globe" which inspired this piece.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at