Sunday, December 25, 2016

Happy Holidays--No post this week

I'm taking a holiday break and expect to post again on Sunday, January 1.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The climate trials of the 21st century have begun

We now have underway the first climate trials (or various stages of them) of the 21st century. The overall question in these trials is actually straightforward: Do governments and corporations have an obligation to protect the habitability of the Earth's climate for human populations?

Let's start with government. The first trial (in the United States) was not actually that recent. In 1999 a group of environmental organizations petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases. In 2003 the EPA denied the petition. Several states then joined a legal appeal which reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The court decided in 2007 that, in fact, the EPA did have the authority and the obligation to consider seriously how to regulate greenhouse gases.

The agency then offered a regulation plan which was challenged in court. In 2014 the Supreme Court found the EPA plan acceptable with a few minor tweaks.

This kind of legal battle is really a plain vanilla regulatory fight about what a particular government agency can and should do under existing laws. But a more sweeping type of legal battle is now unfolding, one that invokes a much broader obligation of the government to make the climate safe for future generations.

In Washington state a group of young people between the ages of 12 and 16 sued the state to force it to implement a greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan. The state has since come up with a plan that the attorneys for the children say is inadequate. They are in court once again.

Washington isn't the only state feeling the judicial heat. A group called Our Children's Trust is pursuing legal action in several states (including the case cited above) and in federal court. The federal case is proceeding to trial after the government failed to get it dismissed. The aim of the federal plaintiffs is to seek broader protection in policies across the government, not in just one agency.

Some legal experts give the federal case little chance of succeeding even if the plaintiffs win at trial. Appellate courts and the Supreme Court are unlikely to buy the argument that there is a general obligation on the part of the government to regulate greenhouse gases that is judicially enforceable outside of specific legislation. But, there will be an airing of scientific evidence during the trial and an attempt to expand existing legal doctrines to cover the unique challenges posed by climate change. This case is the first of its kind at the federal level related to climate under the so-called public trust doctrine.

Outside the United States in the Netherlands, a court ruled that the government of the Netherlands must make deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Similar legal efforts are underway in Belgium and Switzerland.

It's worth remembering that when the first lawsuits against tobacco companies were filed in the United States, few believed they would ever succeed. It took time, but ultimately the tobacco companies were made to pay for damage to public health. And, their advertising was restricted as part of a settlement with state and federal governments. Private lawsuits also eventually found success.

Is there room for private climate-related lawsuits seeking damages? Maybe. If there is general obligation to protect the public from the effects of climate change brought about by greenhouse gases, then it seems logical that those emitting the greenhouse gases might be held liable for damages. A case involving a Peruvian farmer suing a large German utility has just gotten underway. A win, even for the modest damages the farmer is seeking (17,000 euros), could open the floodgates for thousands, perhaps millions more plaintiffs like him. That makes this case a serious financial threat to industries that extract and/or burn large amounts of fossil fuel.

There is yet another kind of climate-related case that is emerging, one that involves the fiduciary responsibilities of fossil fuel companies to inform their investors about threats to their businesses. An investigation of ExxonMobil Corp. initiated by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is trying to determine whether ExxonMobil hid what its own research discovered about climate change as far back as the 1980s and in doing so misled investors about the risks to the oil and gas giant's business.

Many corporate fraud probes begin in New York State because the Martin Act which governs securities fraud there doesn't oblige the attorney general to assert intent to defraud, only that investors were misled by statements issued by a company. In contrast, Federal securities fraud law requires establishing intent--that is, what is going on in the minds of the people making material misstatements--something that is much harder to demonstrate.

Whether ExxonMobil and possibly other large fossil fuel companies end up paying fines for any such fraud, there will now be a thorough airing of what these companies knew about climate change and whether their understanding contradicted the campaigns they funded either to deny the reality of human-induced climate change or to confuse the public and policymakers about the causes and trajectory of climate change.

This development has a remarkable similarity to what happened to tobacco companies. Those companies were forced to divulge what they knew about the dangers of smoking from their own research. Of course, this was kept from the public as the companies continued to insist that smoking wasn't linked to health problems.

It turns out that the Martin Act also allows for criminal sanctions. But it seems unlikely that anyone will go to jail in connection with the current investigation of ExxonMobil.

That does, however, beg a very important question: Can individuals be prosecuted for misleading the public about the dangers of climate change? It seems unlikely that any case of this kind will be mounted in the near future. In the United States the First Amendment problems with such a case are obvious. But I can imagine that if climate change continues at its current accelerating rate, there might be a clamor by, say, 2030 for the prosecution of prominent climate-change-denying businessmen and politicians.

It is doubtful that such prosecutions would get very far in the United States or many other countries under current law. But it seems plausible, even if unlikely, that an international tribunal, perhaps patterned after South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, might take up the task of investigating individuals who have been egregiously obstructionist toward action on climate change. Such a commission would seek to bring about so-called restorative (rather than retributive) justice.

That would be a healing outcome. I can imagine much worse.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is 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, December 11, 2016

The post-fact world and the need for a new consensus

In a piece I wrote four years ago I asked whether we were moving toward a fact-free world. Now, I wonder if that world has arrived.

The media is full of opinions and opinions parading as facts and facts that are not facts and sometimes just crazed fantasies posing as facts. We are now having a public discussion about so-called "fake news" and whose news is really fake. I'm thinking of rumors circulated on the internet that a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C.was a cover for a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager.

There was, of course, absolutely no basis for this wild and on-its-face ridiculous accusation. And yet, a rifle-wielding man who drove in from North Carolina shot up the place. He came all that way believing the story was fact because, well, he read it on the internet. Luckily, no one was hurt.

The bar for facticity for many people has been lowered to ground level it seems. Anything they want to be a fact magically becomes a fact.

Now this is not to say that it is easy to determine what is or is not a fact. When we say "fact," we usually mean something that is true. But that just begs the question of how we determine whether something is true.

We do this in one of two ways. Either we witness something ourselves or we take something to be true based on the authority of others. We may observe some act or process in society or nature and say that we saw something with our own eyes and therefore know it to be true. There is unfortunately the small problem of eyewitness accounts being frequently mistaken. And, there is the problem of trying to interpret what we saw correctly and explain it to others accurately.

Then there are facts which we accept as facts from others because they are friends who have proven reliable in the past or because we believe the source to be a fair-minded and well-informed expert in a particular field. Climate scientists come to mind.

Climate scientists from around the world have arrived at a consensus that human activities are causing the lion's share of warming on planet Earth. They don't make this claim lightly. They have examined the Earth's temperature for decades and been able to estimate temperatures very far back into the past based on ice cores, tree rings and other indirect evidence. And, they can quantify the things that humans are doing that cause warming. They check and recheck and check again against new information that comes in on an almost daily basis from around the world.

The facts of climate change are the most exhaustively examined scientific facts ever in the history of the world. Thousands upon thousands of scientists from disparate disciplines have compared data and conclusions over decades.

Now, I can know a little something about climate change from observation as I've noticed more hot days in summers and both generally warmer, dryer winters and now also more frequent very deep freezes in the United States due to a meandering jet stream, an effect predicted by climate scientists.

And, here is where simply observing isn't enough. To understand how both could be true, one has to understand the complex movements of so-called polar vortexes in order to place them in the climate change narrative. Not even climate scientists agree on the link. But there is now growing evidence. Such context explains why what may turn out to be the warmest November ever could be followed by a deep freeze in December and still fit the climate change narrative.

Here is where people can go off the rails. Because the society in which we now live has become so complex, we must routinely rely on the specialist knowledge of others. When we flick on a wall switch, we don't need to know how electricity works or the power plant that produces it or the coal mine that supplies the power plant. We can leave that to others and trust that they know how to get electricity to us.

Why do we trust them? Because the electricity rarely fails to arrive and when it doesn't, the outage typically lasts no more than an hour or two. (There are exceptions, of course, during large-scale natural disasters or in some places due to destruction from war or the unreliability of the local electric utility.)

For complex phenomena such as climate change, how can we judge except through information provided by experts? We can check their credentials and the type and amount of their research. We can see what their colleagues say about their work. This is complicated and difficult even in the age of the internet since most of what these experts write will likely be hopelessly incomprehensible to us.

In a era that has become increasingly distrustful of experts--and not just climate experts, but experts in economics, trade policy, foreign policy, banking, medicine, law and many other areas--we are seeing results that we don't like (at least in some areas) when we follow or are forced by law or policy to follow the advice of the experts. We have come to believe that these experts are often merely self-interested profiteers or hired spokespersons for wealthy interests who are trying to deceive us.

Once one starts down this path, it is hard to distinguish between intellectually honest pronouncements, say, from climate scientists, and mere boosterism on practically any topic from a think tank hack who has a PhD but who is merely repeating his or her paymaster's views.

This gets to the core of the problem. It doesn't really pay to be intellectually honest any more. In the hyper-partisan environment we now find ourselves, giving an inch to the other side means to many that they will end up losing the argument. Debate is no longer a means to find the truth by testing ideas against the questions and criticisms of others; it is mostly propaganda designed to win no matter what the truth is.

That has often been the case in the past when it comes to partisan political battles. But we have previously reserved a special place for pronouncements from scientists whom we believed were above the partisan fray and who pursued the truth regardless of where it led.

That faith in science is gone for a significant part of the population. Some of the propagandist think tanks have noticed that scientific investigation has social and political aspects like most pursuits in life. This, in the propagandist's view, moves scientists--the ones the propagandist disagrees with, not the ones he or she agrees with--into the realm of self-interested parties who cannot be intellectually honest.

So debate is now not a process that helps lead to consensus, but rather it is often used with the intent of annihilating the other side. And yet, consensus is how we often come to accept facts we cannot observe or determine for ourselves.

It is this lack of consensus which provides a fertile field for untethered fantasies about what is true. What we can say about consensus positions, however, is that they always turn out to be wrong in some direction and must be adjusted to the times and the current state of our society and knowledge. This does not make them useless. Far from it, consensus positions form the basis for common action.

Here is the nub of the issue. Consensus positions don't have to be 100 percent correct in every detail in order to be useful and even life-saving. We can be approximately correct about climate change and do useful things to address it without being 100 percent certain about its course and severity. We are merely being prudent, and our prudence should match the potential severity we are able to discern based on our current understanding. The vast majority of climate scientists believe that climate change is a severe threat and that we should do a lot right away and on into the future to mitigate it.

Those who oppose action often do so based on the misapprehension that public policy is somehow based on certainty. The fact that public policy is NEVER based on certainty should be burned into the brain of every citizen. We always leap together into a world that is only partially understood. Intellectually honest discussion in which doubt and changes in understanding are actually welcomed are the best way to approach a rapidly evolving world where uncertainty is everywhere.

If some people demand certainty before action, then we should ask them to provide certainty that our current trajectory will lead to the happy destination they describe. Those demanding certainty cannot provide certainty and will not provide a warranty--that is, a promise to pay for damages if they are wrong. This shows you that they are, in fact, quite uncertain.

It turns out that a lot of the facts that we believe are actually the result of the consensus understanding of others, possibly the result of careful and intellectually honest research by experts or possibly the result of a conscious or unconscious self-interested campaign of propaganda designed to look like it is the product of such a consensus.

How does one proceed when we must always live with uncertainty? Here we must understand that the major debates of our age over climate, resource limitations, economic inequality, pluralism, terrorism and war have their roots in the changes we humans have inflicted on the biosphere. Climate change is now implicated in major conflicts such as the one in Syria.

The struggle over finite resources such as oil cannot be separated from the continuous turmoil in the Middle East. People fear there will not be enough for everyone to prosper, and those with power grab as much wealth as they can. And, when the powerful find the rules inconvenient, they use their influence with government to change those rules in order to continue their grab for wealth or to get the government to go to war on their behalf--sometimes with results that are the opposite of what is intended. The Iraq War comes to mind.

How do we move forward in such a poisoned and difficult social and political environment? The answer has to be to bring about a new consensus. It turns out the felicitous functioning of society depends consensus. But there can be no consensus where there are no recognized and agreed upon facts. And, facts themselves very often depend on the consensus of experts whom we do not know. In short, without facts there is no consensus and without consensus society can break down into anarchy and conflict.

I'm not saying that this is our destination. I'm only pointing out that finding a consensus is an important step in avoiding such a destination. There are glimmers in recent elections around the world, however troubling they may be, that the old consensus has broken down.

Globalism--that is to say worldwide economic integration mediated by large corporations--does not enjoy the support it used to. The vast gulf between the rich and the poor is being noticed. The destruction of the middle class is being noticed. Senseless and destructive wars that seem to accomplish little are being noticed. The economic devastation being visited on the rural areas and small towns around the world by the forces of globalism is being noticed.

Forging these inchoate understandings into a coherent narrative that includes something about our connection and dependence on the biosphere is the critical task now before us. I don't have that coherent narrative up my sleeve ready to deliver magically to my readers.

The new narrative we need will not come from a savior or a strongman. I think it will be the work of many who see a part of the narrative and articulate it so that others can understand. I believe that narrative will and must be built organically by all those dedicated to creating a just and livable world for us and for those who come after us.

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, December 04, 2016

Who's afraid of a recount?

Why all the fuss about the recounts which Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is asking for in three states, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania? After all, every political professional knows that a vote recount almost never changes the outcome.

The professionals in the Green Party know that. The professionals in the Clinton campaign know that and have said they don't expect the recount to change anything. And, the professionals (if there are any) in the Trump campaign know that. I was a consultant to a candidate who sought two recounts in two very close elections. The recounts barely budged the totals.

There is the rare exception, of course. Al Franken became a U.S. senator from Minnesota because of a recount. But, it's hard to name another officeholder off the top of one's head who is in office today because of a recount.

As it turns out, there are two things which are driving the fear and loathing in the two major parties (even though the Clinton campaign has now said it will participate in the recounts).

First, there is envy. Jill Stein and the Green Party have found a way to increase media coverage of the party and its agenda by an order of magnitude. And, that's just so far. Whatever you think of Stein and her party, they have pulled off a masterstroke of publicity. They will now get weeks of free coverage in all the major and minor media and much of the blogosphere.

It's no puzzle why the Trump administration doesn't want a public discussion of Green Party priorities on climate change and renewable energy when the administration is planning to pull out of the Paris climate accord, reduce support for renewable energy and roll back regulation of the fossil fuel industry.

For the Democratic Party establishment, the Green Party's more thoroughgoing devotion to environmental policies and social and economic justice could over time lure dissatisfied Democrats into the Green Party fold.

But there is another reason major parties don't like these recounts. They call attention to the flawed voting infrastructure in the United States. In a country where politicians and other civic leaders constantly tell us that "every vote counts," we are about to see that not every vote does count.

There are problems with the reliability and integrity of the machines that do the tabulating. Some electronic voting machines are easy to hack. There are problems with some election procedures: burdensome ID requirements, lack of same-day registration, and lack of mail-in voting which provides by far the easiest, most convenient and most thoughtful way to vote. (I know because I live in Oregon which has mail-in balloting only). There is the inherent conflict of interest in having partisan officials oversee vote counting. There are attempts to suppress voting through intimidation and disinformation. And, there is the lack of nationwide standards to insure that every vote really will count.

With the two major parties enjoying a duopoly on political power, the current system is largely to their liking. Jill Stein wants to make them uncomfortable.

Another development in the 2016 U.S. elections that has this duopoly concerned is that Maine adopted via referendum what is called ranked voting. It is also known as preference voting and instant-runoff voting. This will allow Maine voters to rank candidates for an office in order of preference. If no candidate for a particular office wins more than 50 percent of the vote as a first preference, then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is dropped. If a voter's first ranked candidate is dropped in the first round, then the voter's second preference is counted in the second round. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent in the second round, then the process continues until one does.

As a practical matter this means that progressive voters could rank a Green Party candidate as their number one choice without splitting the left-leaning vote in a way that allows a right-leaning candidate to win with less than 50 percent of the vote. Right-leaning voters could choose, say, a candidate from the ultra-conservative Constitution Party without splitting the right-leaning vote in a way what would allow a left-leaning candidate to win with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Ranked voting will mean more diversity of parties and candidates and more possibilities for minor party candidates to win office rather than merely play the role of spoilers. Look for ranked voting to spread to other states in 2018 and beyond.

This election has ushered in an era of extreme volatility and fluidity in American politics. The recounts and the adoption of ranked voting in Maine are just two examples. I expect there to be hundreds more examples in the coming years.

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, November 27, 2016

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break and expect to post again on Sunday, December 4.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Is President Trump the reincarnation of President Tyler?

Many commentators are saying that the election of Donald Trump, a novice who has never held political office, to the presidency of the United States is unprecedented. There have been others who went directly to the White House without first having held other elective office. But the only ones I can think of were previously generals and war heroes; among them were Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Tyler & Trump: More alike than different?

The presidential comparison that strikes me as most apt, however, is between Donald Trump and the nation's 10th president, John Tyler. Like Tyler, Trump's party affiliation changed over time. Trump had given most of his political contributions--prior to his presidential run in 2012--to Democrats before joining the Republican Party and running in the 2012 presidential primaries.

Tyler was a Democrat who defected to the Whig Party and eventually ended up on the Whig ticket as vice president in 1840 with presidential victor William Henry Harrison. The campaign was famous for the phrase "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." Harrison died within one month of entering office elevating Tyler to the presidency.

Tyler rejected the Whig platform and vetoed many of the bills his party sent him. Trump has yet to take office, but we already know that he and Congressional Republicans do not agree on Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, his desire to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, or his stand against existing and pending trade agreements. On the other hand, Democrats are already trying to forge an alliance with Trump on infrastructure spending and trade.

After Tyler's vetoes, the Whigs expelled him from the party. Then, almost all of Tyler's cabinet resigned. Trump is still awaiting his turn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but already there is intraparty turmoil at his transition headquarters in New York City's Trump Tower. Trump has purged some Republican party stalwarts in favor of outsiders and family members as his suspicion grows.

The Whig Party leadership never contemplated that Tyler might become president just as the Republican Party leadership never believed that Trump had a chance at the nomination. Once he had won the nomination, they believed he could not win the presidency.

Tyler was recruited to be Harrison's running mate to balance the ticket by attracting Southern voters. But Tyler's states' rights views ran counter to the Whigs' desire to use to the federal government to modernize the economy and the infrastructure, a program known as the American System. Hence, Tyler's disagreement with the plans of Congressional Whigs. He felt the states should remain responsible for infrastructure.

Of course, in contrast, Trump wants the federal government to engage in a long and costly program of infrastructure improvements, a program not favored by Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. On the other hand, Trump's focus in a globalized economy on "making America great again" is reminiscent of Tyler's focus on states in the era of an emerging national economy.

Those hostile to Tyler nicknamed him "His Accidency." It is fairly clear from the reaction to Trump's victory that few people expected him to become president. While it wasn't an accident, it may have seemed that way to a Republican establishment whose primary system was supposed to crown an establishment choice early on and make that candidate impossible to catch.

In fact, it's possible that Trump did not at first intend to run a serious campaign. In that respect his success may have seemed like an accident to him. Trump may have started out intending only to raise his public profile in order to enhance the Trump brand. Trump nemesis Michael Moore claimed that he had direct confirmation (though the source remained anonymous) that Trump was merely trying to get more money for his reality television show, "The Apprentice." And, an insider from the nominally independent pro-Trump Make America Great Again PAC (which was eventually closed down) said that she was told Trump was merely trying to make a good showing. But then Trump became enamored with his own success.

In the end even statements and actions by Trump which Moore and others characterized as self-destructive only seemed to draw more supporters to him. Was Trump intentionally trying to self-destruct only to be caught off guard by the appeal of his supposedly self-destructive words and behaviors? Only he can tell us.

There is already talk that Trump could be impeached based on possible illegal activities that surface from his past. The standard response to such an assertion is that Republicans control both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. But the claim is that Congressional Republicans will soon tire of having someone in the presidency who though nominally Republican cannot be counted upon to enact their agenda. The successful removal of Trump from office would, of course, make Vice President Mike Pence president. Pence is a seasoned politician who is aligned with the Republican agenda.

Tyler differs from Trump, of course, in key ways. Tyler was a lawyer who came from a political family and held several elective offices before ascending to the vice presidency and then the presidency. But it's worth noting that the fractiousness of the Tyler presidency was a prelude to the dissolution of the Whigs--which by the early 1850s had disintegrated due not only to internal disagreements over slavery, but also lack of a coherent, unified message.

Republicans face internal divisions among those who voted for them as well. The traditional Republican coalition of business interests, libertarians, and social conservatives was augmented this year by an influx of white working-class voters feeling besieged by economic globalization. Of course, many white working-class voters had already been voting Republican for a long time because of their discomfort with what they perceived as the liberal social agenda of the Democratic Party. But it was the new and crossover working-class voters who proved decisive.

Those voters oppose the free trade agenda of the Republican Party and are skeptical of the party's corporate ties. Moreover, social conservatives can hardly find Trump's embrace of same-sex marriage comforting. And, the business lobby hates Trump's opposition to so-called H-1B visas, the kind that allow foreign high-tech workers to work in the United States. Scarier yet for the business-oriented globalist Republicans, Steve Bannon, Trump's closest advisor, is calling for what he dubs "an economic nationalist movement."

Will these internal tensions cause the Republican Party to go the way of Whigs? At the very least, the road ahead for the Republican Party and Donald Trump does not look like a smooth one, and Trump's unpredictable style is likely to keep the public and the pundits guessing every step of the way about what comes next.

Images of John Tyler and Donald Trump sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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, November 13, 2016

Trump: America's pilot-in-chief in the post-ecological age

Many Americans are frightened by the idea of Donald Trump as the country's new pilot-in-chief, fearing he'll crash the airliner of state (including climate and environmental policies) into a mountain or the ground. Clinton, they argued, for all her flaws, knows how to fly this thing called a country using the federal government and at least won't end up crashing it.

But my metaphor assumes that every American believes he or she is on the same plane. And, that understanding is what seems to have clouded the minds of so many when thinking about the U.S. presidential campaign this year. For those living in America's small towns and rural areas and for those in the downwardly mobile working class, their plane has already crashed!

These groups are now dazed and wandering around in the wreckage trying to figure out how to live from day to day. It is no wonder that such voters were immune to cries that Trump would crash the country. The business-as-usual globalism that they believed Hillary Clinton represented seemed to them like it would only make things worse.

Both Donald Trump and Democratic primary contender Bernie Sanders told these disaffected groups that a big part of the reason their communities and livelihoods crashed was a set of trade agreements that essentially shipped their jobs overseas. That made sense to them, and for a time they had two competing champions. But only Donald Trump made it to the general election.

Having already seen their lives and livelihoods crash, those disaffected Americans who voted for Trump did so with more than a little glee in the hope that the specially outfitted luxury airliner America's elite flies would crash as well. I think many of these voters were aware of the irony of voting for someone as their champion who really does fly around in his own private luxury airliner. But, they had simply had enough of establishment candidates and wanted to send a message. They certainly got everyone's attention when Trump won.

(As I've written before, Trump attracted most of the traditional Republican voters--business-oriented voters, social conservatives, and libertarians. What tipped the balance were the excess votes coming from those who might have voted for Sanders had he been the Democratic nominee.)

Whether Trump can or will actually fulfill promises made to those who supported him is unknown. The news out of Washington last week does not bode well for such an outcome as 1) conservatives downplay new infrastructure spending that would help create the jobs Trump promised, 2) Chamber of Commerce Republicans could balk at his levying a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods that is supposed to protect American workers and 3) Trump considers John Bolton for secretary of state, a man who would certainly try to derail a warming of relations with Russia favored by Trump.

Trump may also face Republican attempts to impeach him to make way for establishment Republican Vice President Mike Pence to become president. Even conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks couldn't resist hinting at the possibility in a recent column. Given the coverage of Trump to date, it doesn't seem far-fetched that a determined Republican Congress could build a case against him.

The shock of Trump's victory has been likened to the shock the world felt when British voters narrowly chose to leave the European Union, a move dubbed "Brexit." I detailed then the energy part of the Brexit equation suggesting that Great Britain's declining oil and gas production from the North Sea since 2004 had undermined the prosperity of the country--except for the financial class mostly located in and around London, a major world financial center.

I noted that stagnant wages were a common theme both in Britain and the United States and suggested a link with the high worldwide price of oil from 2010 through most of 2014.

I also noted in another piece that both major U.S. presidential candidates--while differing on environmental issues such as climate change--embraced speeding up economic growth. My conclusion in this much older piece is that what U.S. political parties differ on ecologically speaking is not whether we should protect the long-term habitability of the biosphere for humans, but rather at what pace we should undermine that habitability for short-term gains, both political and economic.

This is what I mean when I say we have a pre-ecological politics in a post-ecological age. The sciences tells us quite grimly what the prognosis is for the climate, the oceans, the rivers, the soil, the forests, and the myriad other species that share the planet with us, but we do not understand. Most of us cling to the what I call the modern myth, the premises of which I'll repeat here:

  1. Humans are in one category and nature is in another.
  2. Scale doesn't matter.
  3. History can be safely ignored since modern society has seen through the delusions of the past.
  4. Science is a unified, coherent field that explains the rational principles by which we can manage the physical world.

Those who fret about Trump's climate and environmental policies have reason to be concerned. But, in truth, our trajectory with Clinton would only be somewhat less injurious to the biosphere--though it might have upheld other values such as the importance of maintaining the natural beauty of some public lands. (We should also not overestimate what one person, even the president of the United States, can do good or bad regarding such matters.)

This is not to dismiss the Paris climate agreement from which Trump has pledged to withdraw the United States. The agreement was an important watershed moment in which the world was united at least in saying that climate change was real and an urgent priority. But what we need to do to address climate change goes far beyond what that agreement contains.

Our larger problem is that our political discourse remains pre-ecological. Changing that discourse won't happen just because another party takes the White House in four years.

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, November 06, 2016

The most powerful word in politics is 'no'

I always advise candidates with whom I consult to find something to which they can say "no" and to say "no" to it often. I am neither being perverse nor merely negative. I am being realistic. The most powerful word in politics is "no."

It is a testament to the power of "no" that a U.S. presidential candidate 1) who is a billionaire and reality TV star, 2) who has never held elective office, 3) who appears to have very little policy knowledge, 4) who has inveighed against the threat of all Muslims and immigrants in general, 5) who has demonstrated distasteful and dismissive conduct toward women, 6) who has bankrupted companies he controlled several times, 7) who has called his opponent a crook with frequency, 8) who has run an underfunded and disastrously disorganized, undisciplined campaign, 9) who has demonstrated a thin skin through narcissistic fits of anger during live television debates and 10) who claims publicly that the election has been rigged to prevent him from winning--that candidate, Donald Trump, is running neck and neck in the polls with an establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, who has virtually every advantage.

Make no mistake about it. Donald Trump is the candidate of "no." In this race he represents "no" to the established political order of both parties. (Whether he would be that "no" in actual practice is an open question.)

If I had read you the above list of 10 items a year ago describing a presidential nominee for a major party and told you that that candidate would be virtually tied with his establishment opponent right before the election, you and most everyone within earshot would have had a good laugh. But here we are.

More often than not voters seek to vent their spleens when they vote. There is always something to be angry about, and the easiest thing in the world to do is to express anger. We humans are made for it. It is an instinctual response meant to warn others. Expressing it as voters has the added benefit of giving us a feeling of power. Voting is one of few arenas where the average person has the same say as the richest billionaire.

(The corollary to anger in this context is fear. And, while people often vote their fears, the way they tend to articulate their reasons for voting their fears is through the expression of anger.)

America's elites are puzzled about why there is so much anger among the electorate this year. Those elites are out of touch with the damage that the globalizing economy has inflicted on rural and small-town America. They are out of touch with a population whose incomes have stagnated or declined since the Great Recession. They are out of touch with people who have simply given up looking for work and are therefore no longer counted among the unemployed.

One might make the case that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee for president, he might be far ahead of Donald Trump given Sanders' consistently high polling numbers versus Trump. But part of Sanders' secret is his ability to harness the power of "no." "No" to big bankers. "No" to barons of industry. "No" to unfair trade deals. Still, Sanders had more than just the word "no." He had a plan for addressing the damage done to middle-class families by the powerful. Sanders had a "yes" as well.

Clinton often seems as removed from the suffering masses as the elites I described above. I understand that her temperament would never have allowed her to growl like Sanders or Trump. But she has not been able to find a definitive "no" in an election that is turning out to be all about "no," either "no" to the establishment or "no" to Donald Trump.

When Chile's implacable dictator, Augusto Pinochet, made himself subject to a plebiscite in 1988 to determine whether he would continue as president for another eight years, he handed his opposition the most powerful word in politics. The "No" campaign has become famous and has been chronicled in a film of the same name. Pinochet lost, and the "No" campaign effectively ended his rule.

Not every important issue lends itself to "no." The "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign never made much of a dent in illicit drug use. Saying "no" to climate change--that is, telling people how terrible it will be in order to get them to act to prevent and mitigate it--has not been a very fruitful strategy. Instead, climate change deniers have styled climate change as a hoax, and have, in a sense, taken over the "no" position.

In order for "no" to work well in public discourse, it helps to have a villain to whom you are saying "no": rich bankers, dictators, "evil" political opponents, foreigners. "No," when used against an amorphous atmospheric problem such as climate change, falls flat. Vilifying coal and oil company executives works much better. We want to say "no" to somebody specific.

The problem with "no" is that when it is not paired with a "yes" in some form, it leads to nothing more than the politics of anger. Entire political movements can be fueled for a long time on anger. But very little positive change can be accomplished unless there is ultimately something to say "yes" to that will unite the disparate chorus of "no," the members of which don't automatically agree on solutions.

Beware of the "no"-mongers who offer you no comprehensible and feasible path to "yes." They just want to keep your anger alive for their own gain and that of the powerful vested interests they represent.

One more thing: Solving the problems behind the "no" would actually undermine the power of the "no"-mongers. That's why they don't ever actually try to solve them.

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 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