Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thoughtful Review of the Bankruptcy of Neoliberal Capitalism

Here's a nice recap of how we got here (from prosperity to bankruptcy), from a rare Marxist perspective:

"The first intellectual consequence of the economic crisis was to undermine neoliberalism—or the belief in the sufficiency of markets to secure human welfare—as the age’s default ideology.

The second was to prompt a hasty resurrection of Keynes. “We are all Keynesians again!” the ghost of Richard Nixon might have declared as Gordon Brown and Barack Obama, leaders of the nations most squarely behind the neoliberal push of the last thirty years, changed the Anglo-American tune and, this past winter, begged their European colleagues to stimulate the Continental economy with borrowed money. The crisis also made the economists Paul Krugman and Nouriel Roubini into the first Keynesian superstars since John Kenneth Galbraith. Their recommendations, on their invaluable blogs, of still vaster countercyclical spending and the temporary nationalization of banks were not taken up by the Obama administration, but they did confer new respectability on the idea of close state involvement in the economy.

But the Keynesian revival, so far, is partial and expedient rather than thorough-going. Keynes’s “somewhat comprehensive socialization of investment” remains taboo, and when Hyman Minsky’s famous reinterpretation of Keynes was rushed back into print last year (Minsky developed through Keynes a theory of bubbles and their bursting), the author of the preface to the new edition assured readers that Minsky’s own advocacy of public-led investment could be ignored. There are at least two Keyneses: the tinkering inspiration for the so-called neo-classical synthesis, who demonstrates the ultimate viability of capitalism in spite of bouts of crisis; and the suave radical whose call for the “the euthanasia of the rentier” doesn’t stop far short of taking the rentier out to be shot. This second Keynes lives next door to the Marx who in the Manifesto insisted on the “centralization of credit in the banks of the state,” and hasn’t been heard from much lately.

For the moment, the neo-Keynesian blog posts bear the same relationship to the crisis as cognitive behavioral therapy does to a patient’s troubles. Here is something insightful, helpful; listen carefully and it might save your life. But when the acute pain passes you will be left with the chronic problem of who and what you are. The suffering individual has psychoanalysis to turn to. In economics, the analogous route is Marxism, which like psychoanalysis has a dubious reputation—and an explanatory power and long-term perspective that its rivals can’t touch. With luck, the next intellectual consequence of the crisis will be to pry the lid off Marx’s tomb, since it is only from a Marxian standpoint that the recent credit bubble can be understood in terms of the structural problems it affected to solve as well as those it has created.

From the first there were confused signs of a hunger for Marxist thought. Back in the clammy depths of the market’s autumn plunge, Robert Kuttner of the determinedly liberal American Prospect acknowledged that in light of Treasury’s rescue plan the “Marxian cant” designating the government as “the executive committee of the ruling class” sounded perfectly just. And John Lanchester in the New Yorker wanted to know, “Are there any unreconstructed Marxists left, anywhere in the wild? (Universities don’t count.) If there are, now would be a good moment for one of them to publish a book saying that the man in the beard would regard himself as having been proved right.” Here was a call for Marxist ideas that simultaneously reimposed their ban. We might require authors of Marxist tomes—but professors don’t count, only freelancers. (Such a guy would be worth a New Yorker profile: for instance, who loans him his shoes?)

Of course there are reasons for being suspicious of Marxism. During the Third International and in the scattered sectarian life it has led outside the universities since the Second World War, Marxism has shown a susceptibility to dogma hardly equaled outside of American economics departments. But the ideological rout that Marxism began to suffer in the ’70s did what periods in the wilderness are supposed to do: it discouraged bandwagon-jumpers and enforced a new seriousness on those who stuck around. The truth is that since the neoliberal era began thirty years ago, Marxism has yielded some of its most formidable monuments of economic thought. Two in particular are David Harvey’s abstract and categorical Limits to Capital (1982), which as the restatement and completion of a great thinker’s project easily outclasses Minsky’s John Maynard Keynes (1975), and Robert Brenner’s narrative and empirical Economics of Global Turbulence (2006), which barely mentions Marx while vindicating, through an analysis of the postwar American, German, and Japanese economies, the idea Marx took from David Ricardo and made his own: the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in a situation of free competition.

The need for a Marxist macroeconomics is patent in one small line from Paul Krugman’s Return of Depression Economics: “In the early 1970s, for reasons that are still somewhat mysterious, growth slowed throughout the advanced world” (our italics). And growth had stayed slow, for reasons that to a mainstream economics confessedly “shy of the grandest themes” (as the founder of general equilibrium theory once put it) remain a baffling mystery.

The global rate of economic growth has declined from about 3.5 percent annually in the ’60s, to 2.4 percent in the ’70s, to 1.4 percent and 1 percent in the ’80s and ’90s, to 1 percent in this decade—much of which single paltry percentage turns out to have been illusory. Meanwhile, financial services, starting in the early ’80s, took a larger and larger share of total income and total profits in the world’s largest economy, until finally finance had become, by last fall, the largest American industry, accruing to itself a quarter of all US profits. This combination of declining overall growth with burgeoning finance suggests that the connection between finance and investment can’t have been the alleged one: the direction of capital to its most productive uses. So there must be a better way to characterize a situation—that of the last decades—in which vast quantities of overaccumulated capital (the neo-Keynesian’s “excess of desired savings”) circle the globe in search of profits, while the vitality of capitalism as a whole steadily diminishes.

Marxists differ in the details of their accounts of the postwar economy, but the story, which ends for now in the cliffhanger of the first contraction of the world economy since 1945, goes something like this: The so-called Golden Age of postwar capitalism from 1950–70—a time of rising wages, profits, and investment—was the product of special and perishable circumstances. The wartime destruction of the Japanese and German productive base meant that, with the resumption of peace and renewed growth in demand for non-military goods, all the major industrial economies could for a time thrive without threat to one another. But the maturation of European and Japanese industry toward the end of the ’60s spelled the return of mutually destructive competition. Firms producing internationally tradable goods (cars, electronics, et cetera) could only survive by reducing prices, which in turn reduced profitability. And yet the capital sunk in manufacturing plants was enough to make capitalists reluctant to exit a given product line in spite of reduced profitability. Besides, governments don’t like to see big firms fail even when they can’t compete. (The Obama administration has lately proved almost as indulgent of GM as the state-directed Japanese banks have always been of Japanese industry.) And the more recent advent of China as a manufacturing power only exacerbated the situation, as the Chinese (to quote Brenner) “continued to expand capacity faster than it could be scrapped system-wide and to rain down torrents of redundant, increasingly high-tech goods upon the world market.”

The orthodox story blames declining profitability (and price inflation) during the ’70s on the excessive demands of labor—a plausible enough explanation until you consider that the worldwide defeat of labor since the ’80s has failed to restore prior levels of growth. The high wages of the early ’70s are long gone. What has endured and intensified since then is a systemic bias in favor of short-term financial speculation over longer-term productive investment. The replacement of the gold standard by floating currencies encouraged capital to flit from country to country in search of returns magnified by any temporary overvaluation of this or that national fiat money. At the same time, information technology sped transactions along at a new rate and volume. What in 1983 was a daily mass of $2.3 billion in international financial transactions had become $130 billion by 2001. Only about 2 percent of the same sum would be necessary to maintain international trade and productive investment.

Meanwhile production is guided by the search for low wages. The export-led growth of first Germany and Japan, then the “Asian Tigers,” then China with its endless reserve army of labor has flooded the world with cheapening goods; and between 1985 and 1995 the US itself staged a manufacturing revival through the exporter’s proven formula of cowed labor and an undervalued currency. But this is supply: what about demand? The fundamental problem with workers (to whom as much money as possible should be denied if commodities are to be affordable) is that they are also consumers (to whom as much money as possible should be supplied if they are to buy commodities). Marxists aren’t kidding when they talk about the contradictions of capitalism. In the end, as Marx wrote, “the ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses.” The result of declining or stagnant real wages since the ’80s has been global industrial overcapacity: too much plant turning out too much stuff for not enough buyers.

The structural solution to this dilemma was as ingenious as it was unsustainable. If the global wage-bill couldn’t cover all the world’s gimcrack goods and coastal vacation properties, then consumers—especially American, but also European—had to be extended a new line of credit. They would borrow money to buy houses, and then borrow more money, to buy other stuff, against the rising value of these houses! Of course many new home-buyers plainly couldn’t pay their mortgages; the mortgages were granted on the assumption that someone else ultimately could and would. So present consumer demand was leveraged against a future demand for which there was no plausible source. For mortgage brokers operating under the originate-and-distribute model this didn’t matter; they had already pocketed their commissions. And those bundling iffy mortgages into securities comforted themselves with a rhetorical question: What was the likelihood of homeowners defaulting en masse?

The venality and self-deception of the brokers, rating agencies, and bankers are now notorious. By comparison, David Harvey’s most audacious theoretical move, in Limits to Capital, seems sensible enough: How can Marx’s labor theory of value (which identifies value as “socially necessary labor time”) be reconciled with land prices, given that land is obviously not the product of human labor? Harvey’s answer was that under capitalism land becomes “a pure financial asset”; land price is a claim on future revenue treated as a present-day asset. “Mortgages,” Marx said, “are mere titles on future rent.” And Harvey completes his thought: “Land price must be realized as future rental appropriation, which rests on future labor” (our italics). The big risk, naturally, is that you will attribute to real estate far more present-day value than can later on be returned to it by labor (in the form of the portion of total income devoted to housing). A bubble occurs not when people pay for real estate with money they don’t yet have—as always happens, given the availabilty of credit—but when they pay with money they will never have, out of wages they will never receive—out of wages no one will ever receive. This past fall the papers were full of “analysts” wrapping their heads around a new idea: “Home prices,” said one, “are going to have to start reflecting people’s income.”

In the world at large, if not always in the bubble-addicted US, recessions have been deeper and longer and recoveries ever more feeble since 1973. Already the recovery after the recession of 2001–02 was the weakest on record, adding virtually no new jobs to the rolls. The main stimulus to consumption was the confection of fantastic, improbable, and finally fictitious paper assets. And as Brenner wrote in 2006—were he not a Marxist he would be counted among the prophets of the crash—“the US Fed’s continuing dependence on cheap credit and asset-price bubbles to provide the subsidy to demand to keep the economy turning over appears to have only delayed, but not really avoided, the economy’s obligatory responses to the over-capacity, fall in profitability, and asset-price crash of 2000–01.” In this way alone—alas—the Bush Administration never happened.

The motor of accumulation has been sputtering for nearly four decades, and its coughs can be heard again now that the roar of combusting paper wealth is dying down. This doesn’t mean capitalism or even growth is at an end. Economists of all kinds have pinned their hopes on the transformation of laboring and saving Chinese into hardy consumers. In any case, the US consumer—a ravening appetite in a paper house—appears to be finished as the world’s buyer of last resort. It would add a nice dialectical twist to the future history of our period if it could be said that, around the time the post-Maoist Chinese took up shopping, the post-bubble Americans turned to studying Marx."

Naomi Klein On GOM Geyser

Naomi is one of our favorite writers, doing complete and total justice with The Shock Doctrine, spoken of here at length. Here she is on the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster (quoted in its entirety):

Gulf oil spill: A hole in the world

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is not just an industrial accident – it is a violent wound inflicted on the Earth itself. In this special report from the Gulf coast, a leading author and activist shows how it lays bare the hubris at the heart of capitalism

Everyone gathered for the town hall meeting had been repeatedly instructed to show civility to the gentlemen from BP and the federal government. These fine folks had made time in their busy schedules to come to a high school gymnasium on a Tuesday night in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, one of many coastal communities where brown poison was slithering through the marshes, part of what has come to be described as the largest environmental disaster in US history.

"Speak to others the way you would want to be spoken to," the chair of the meeting pleaded one last time before opening the floor for questions.

And for a while the crowd, mostly made up of fishing families, showed remarkable restraint. They listened patiently to Larry Thomas, a genial BP public relations flack, as he told them that he was committed to "doing better" to process their claims for lost revenue – then passed all the details off to a markedly less friendly subcontractor. They heard out the suit from the Environmental Protection Agency as he informed them that, contrary to what they have read about the lack of testing and the product being banned in Britain, the chemical dispersant being sprayed on the oil in massive quantities was really perfectly safe.

But patience started running out by the third time Ed Stanton, a coast guard captain, took to the podium to reassure them that "the coast guard intends to make sure that BP cleans it up".

"Put it in writing!" someone shouted out. By now the air conditioning had shut itself off and the coolers of Budweiser were running low. A shrimper named Matt O'Brien approached the mic. "We don't need to hear this anymore," he declared, hands on hips. It didn't matter what assurances they were offered because, he explained, "we just don't trust you guys!" And with that, such a loud cheer rose up from the floor you'd have thought the Oilers (the unfortunately named school football team) had scored a touchdown.

The showdown was cathartic, if nothing else. For weeks residents had been subjected to a barrage of pep talks and extravagant promises coming from Washington, Houston and London. Every time they turned on their TVs, there was the BP boss, Tony Hayward, offering his solemn word that he would "make it right". Or else it was President Barack Obama expressing his absolute confidence that his administration would "leave the Gulf coast in better shape than it was before", that he was "making sure" it "comes back even stronger than it was before this crisis".

It all sounded great. But for people whose livelihoods put them in intimate contact with the delicate chemistry of the wetlands, it also sounded completely ridiculous, painfully so. Once the oil coats the base of the marsh grass, as it had already done just a few miles from here, no miracle machine or chemical concoction could safely get it out. You can skim oil off the surface of open water, and you can rake it off a sandy beach, but an oiled marsh just sits there, slowly dying. The larvae of countless species for which the marsh is a spawning ground – shrimp, crab, oysters and fin fish – will be poisoned.

It was already happening. Earlier that day, I travelled through nearby marshes in a shallow water boat. Fish were jumping in waters encircled by white boom, the strips of thick cotton and mesh BP is using to soak up the oil. The circle of fouled material seemed to be tightening around the fish like a noose. Nearby, a red-winged blackbird perched atop a 2 metre (7ft) blade of oil-contaminated marsh grass. Death was creeping up the cane; the small bird may as well have been standing on a lit stick of dynamite.

And then there is the grass itself, or the Roseau cane, as the tall sharp blades are called. If oil seeps deeply enough into the marsh, it will not only kill the grass above ground but also the roots. Those roots are what hold the marsh together, keeping bright green land from collapsing into the Mississippi River delta and the Gulf of Mexico. So not only do places like Plaquemines Parish stand to lose their fisheries, but also much of the physical barrier that lessens the intensity of fierce storms like hurricane Katrina. Which could mean losing everything.

How long will it take for an ecosystem this ravaged to be "restored and made whole" as Obama's interior secretary has pledged to do? It's not at all clear that such a thing is remotely possible, at least not in a time frame we can easily wrap our heads around. The Alaskan fisheries have yet to fully recover from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and some species of fish never returned. Government scientists now estimate that as much as a Valdez-worth of oil may be entering the Gulf coastal waters every four days. An even worse prognosis emerges from the 1991 Gulf war spill, when an estimated 11m barrels of oil were dumped into the Persian Gulf – the largest spill ever. That oil entered the marshland and stayed there, burrowing deeper and deeper thanks to holes dug by crabs. It's not a perfect comparison, since so little clean-up was done, but according to a study conducted 12 years after the disaster, nearly 90% of the impacted muddy salt marshes and mangroves were still profoundly damaged.

We do know this. Far from being "made whole," the Gulf coast, more than likely, will be diminished. Its rich waters and crowded skies will be less alive than they are today. The physical space many communities occupy on the map will also shrink, thanks to erosion. And the coast's legendary culture will contract and wither. The fishing families up and down the coast do not just gather food, after all. They hold up an intricate network that includes family tradition, cuisine, music, art and endangered languages – much like the roots of grass holding up the land in the marsh. Without fishing, these unique cultures lose their root system, the very ground on which they stand. (BP, for its part, is well aware of the limits of recovery. The company's Gulf of Mexico regional oil spill response plan specifically instructs officials not to make "promises that property, ecology, or anything else will be restored to normal". Which is no doubt why its officials consistently favour folksy terms like "make it right".)

If Katrina pulled back the curtain on the reality of racism in America, the BP disaster pulls back the curtain on something far more hidden: how little control even the most ingenious among us have over the awesome, intricately interconnected natural forces with which we so casually meddle. BP cannot plug the hole in the Earth that it made. Obama cannot order fish species to survive, or brown pelicans not to go extinct (no matter whose ass he kicks). No amount of money – not BP's recently pledged $20bn (£13.5bn), not $100bn – can replace a culture that has lost its roots. And while our politicians and corporate leaders have yet to come to terms with these humbling truths, the people whose air, water and livelihoods have been contaminated are losing their illusions fast.

"Everything is dying," a woman said as the town hall meeting was finally coming to a close. "How can you honestly tell us that our Gulf is resilient and will bounce back? Because not one of you up here has a hint as to what is going to happen to our Gulf. You sit up here with a straight face and act like you know when you don't know."

This Gulf coast crisis is about many things – corruption, deregulation, the addiction to fossil fuels. But underneath it all, it's about this: our culture's excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us. But as the BP disaster has revealed, nature is always more unpredictable than the most sophisticated mathematical and geological models imagine. During Thursday's congressional testimony, Hayward said: "The best minds and the deepest expertise are being brought to bear" on the crisis, and that, "with the possible exception of the space programme in the 1960s, it is difficult to imagine the gathering of a larger, more technically proficient team in one place in peacetime." And yet, in the face of what the geologist Jill Schneiderman has described as "Pandora's well", they are like the men at the front of that gymnasium: they act like they know, but they don't know.

BP's mission statement

In the arc of human history, the notion that nature is a machine for us to re-engineer at will is a relatively recent conceit. In her ground-breaking 1980 book The Death of Nature, the environmental historian Carolyn Merchant reminded readers that up until the 1600s, the Earth was alive, usually taking the form of a mother. Europeans – like indigenous people the world over – believed the planet to be a living organism, full of life-giving powers but also wrathful tempers. There were, for this reason, strong taboos against actions that would deform and desecrate "the mother", including mining.

The metaphor changed with the unlocking of some (but by no means all) of nature's mysteries during the scientific revolution of the 1600s. With nature now cast as a machine, devoid of mystery or divinity, its component parts could be dammed, extracted and remade with impunity. Nature still sometimes appeared as a woman, but one easily dominated and subdued. Sir Francis Bacon best encapsulated the new ethos when he wrote in the 1623 De dignitate et augmentis scientiarum that nature is to be "put in constraint, moulded, and made as it were new by art and the hand of man".

Those words may as well have been BP's corporate mission statement. Boldly inhabiting what the company called "the energy frontier", it dabbled in synthesising methane-producing microbes and announced that "a new area of investigation" would be geoengineering. And of course it bragged that, at its Tiber prospect in the Gulf of Mexico, it now had "the deepest well ever drilled by the oil and gas industry" – as deep under the ocean floor as jets fly overhead.

Imagining and preparing for what would happen if these experiments in altering the building blocks of life and geology went wrong occupied precious little space in the corporate imagination. As we have all discovered, after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on 20 April, the company had no systems in place to effectively respond to this scenario. Explaining why it did not have even the ultimately unsuccessful containment dome waiting to be activated on shore, a BP spokesman, Steve Rinehart, said: "I don't think anybody foresaw the circumstance that we're faced with now." Apparently, it "seemed inconceivable" that the blowout preventer would ever fail – so why prepare?

This refusal to contemplate failure clearly came straight from the top. A year ago, Hayward told a group of graduate students at Stanford University that he has a plaque on his desk that reads: "If you knew you could not fail, what would you try?" Far from being a benign inspirational slogan, this was actually an accurate description of how BP and its competitors behaved in the real world. In recent hearings on Capitol Hill, congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts grilled representatives from the top oil and gas companies on the revealing ways in which they had allocated resources. Over three years, they had spent "$39bn to explore for new oil and gas. Yet, the average investment in research and development for safety, accident prevention and spill response was a paltry $20m a year."

These priorities go a long way towards explaining why the initial exploration plan that BP submitted to the federal government for the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon well reads like a Greek tragedy about human hubris. The phrase "little risk" appears five times. Even if there is a spill, BP confidently predicts that, thanks to "proven equipment and technology", adverse affects will be minimal. Presenting nature as a predictable and agreeable junior partner (or perhaps subcontractor), the report cheerfully explains that should a spill occur, "Currents and microbial degradation would remove the oil from the water column or dilute the constituents to background levels". The effects on fish, meanwhile, "would likely be sublethal" because of "the capability of adult fish and shellfish to avoid a spill [and] to metabolise hydrocarbons". (In BP's telling, rather than a dire threat, a spill emerges as an all-you-can-eat buffet for aquatic life.)

Best of all, should a major spill occur, there is, apparently, "little risk of contact or impact to the coastline" because of the company's projected speedy response (!) and "due to the distance [of the rig] to shore" – about 48 miles (77km). This is the most astonishing claim of all. In a gulf that often sees winds of more than 70km an hour, not to mention hurricanes, BP had so little respect for the ocean's capacity to ebb and flow, surge and heave, that it did not think oil could make a paltry 77km trip. (Last week, a shard of the exploded Deepwater Horizon showed up on a beach in Florida, 306km away.)

None of this sloppiness would have been possible, however, had BP not been making its predictions to a political class eager to believe that nature had indeed been mastered. Some, like Republican Lisa Murkowski, were more eager than others. The Alaskan senator was so awe-struck by the industry's four-dimensional seismic imaging that she proclaimed deep-sea drilling to have reached the very height of controlled artificiality. "It's better than Disneyland in terms of how you can take technologies and go after a resource that is thousands of years old and do so in an environmentally sound way," she told the Senate energy committee just seven months ago.

Drilling without thinking has of course been Republican party policy since May 2008. With gas prices soaring to unprecedented heights, that's when the conservative leader Newt Gingrich unveiled the slogan "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less" – with an emphasis on the now. The wildly popular campaign was a cry against caution, against study, against measured action. In Gingrich's telling, drilling at home wherever the oil and gas might be – locked in Rocky Mountain shale, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and deep offshore – was a surefire way to lower the price at the pump, create jobs, and kick Arab ass all at once. In the face of this triple win, caring about the environment was for sissies: as senator Mitch McConnell put it, "in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas, they think oil rigs are pretty". By the time the infamous "Drill Baby Drill" Republican national convention rolled around, the party base was in such a frenzy for US-made fossil fuels, they would have bored under the convention floor if someone had brought a big enough drill.

Obama, eventually, gave in, as he invariably does. With cosmic bad timing, just three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon blew up, the president announced he would open up previously protected parts of the country to offshore drilling. The practice was not as risky as he had thought, he explained. "Oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced." That wasn't enough for Sarah Palin, however, who sneered at the Obama administration's plans to conduct more studies before drilling in some areas. "My goodness, folks, these areas have been studied to death," she told the Southern Republican leadership conference in New Orleans, now just 11 days before the blowout. "Let's drill, baby, drill, not stall, baby, stall!" And there was much rejoicing.

In his congressional testimony, Hayward said: "We and the entire industry will learn from this terrible event." And one might well imagine that a catastrophe of this magnitude would indeed instil BP executives and the "Drill Now" crowd with a new sense of humility. There are, however, no signs that this is the case. The response to the disaster – at the corporate and governmental levels – has been rife with the precise brand of arrogance and overly sunny predictions that created the disaster in the first place.

The ocean is big, she can take it, we heard from Hayward in the early days. While spokesman John Curry insisted that hungry microbes would consume whatever oil was in the water system, because "nature has a way of helping the situation". But nature has not been playing along. The deep-sea gusher has bust out of all BP's top hats, containment domes, and junk shots. The ocean's winds and currents have made a mockery of the lightweight booms BP has laid out to absorb the oil. "We told them," said Byron Encalade, the president of the Louisiana Oysters Association. "The oil's gonna go over the booms or underneath the bottom." Indeed it did. The marine biologist Rick Steiner, who has been following the clean up closely, estimates that "70% or 80% of the booms are doing absolutely nothing at all".

And then there are the controversial chemical dispersants: more than 1.3m gallons dumped with the company's trademark "what could go wrong?" attitude. As the angry residents at the Plaquemines Parish town hall rightly point out, few tests had been conducted, and there is scant research about what this unprecedented amount of dispersed oil will do to marine life. Nor is there a way to clean up the toxic mixture of oil and chemicals below the surface. Yes, fast multiplying microbes do devour underwater oil – but in the process they also absorb the water's oxygen, creating a whole new threat to marine life.

BP had even dared to imagine that it could prevent unflattering images of oil-covered beaches and birds from escaping the disaster zone. When I was on the water with a TV crew, for instance, we were approached by another boat whose captain asked, ""Y'all work for BP?" When we said no, the response – in the open ocean – was "You can't be here then". But of course these heavy-handed tactics, like all the others, have failed. There is simply too much oil in too many places. "You cannot tell God's air where to flow and go, and you can't tell water where to flow and go," I was told by Debra Ramirez. It was a lesson she had learned from living in Mossville, Louisiana, surrounded by 14 emission-spewing petrochemical plants, and watching illness spread from neighbour to neighbour.

Human limitation has been the one constant of this catastrophe. After two months, we still have no idea how much oil is flowing, nor when it will stop. The company's claim that it will complete relief wells by the end of August – repeated by Obama in his Oval Office address – is seen by many scientists as a bluff. The procedure is risky and could fail, and there is a real possibility that the oil could continue to leak for years.

The flow of denial shows no sign of abating either. Louisiana politicians indignantly oppose Obama's temporary freeze on deepwater drilling, accusing him of killing the one big industry left standing now that fishing and tourism are in crisis. Palin mused on Facebook that "no human endeavour is ever without risk", while Texas Republican congressman John Culberson described the disaster as a "statistical anomaly". By far the most sociopathic reaction, however, comes from veteran Washington commentator Llewellyn King: rather than turning away from big engineering risks, we should pause in "wonder that we can build machines so remarkable that they can lift the lid off the underworld".

Make the bleeding stop

Thankfully, many are taking a very different lesson from the disaster, standing not in wonder at humanity's power to reshape nature, but at our powerlessness to cope with the fierce natural forces we unleash. There is something else too. It is the feeling that the hole at the bottom of the ocean is more than an engineering accident or a broken machine. It is a violent wound in a living organism; that it is part of us. And thanks to BP's live camera feed, we can all watch the Earth's guts gush forth, in real time, 24 hours a day.

John Wathen, a conservationist with the Waterkeeper Alliance, was one of the few independent observers to fly over the spill in the early days of the disaster. After filming the thick red streaks of oil that the coast guard politely refers to as "rainbow sheen", he observed what many had felt: "The Gulf seems to be bleeding." This imagery comes up again and again in conversations and interviews. Monique Harden, an environmental rights lawyer in New Orleans, refuses to call the disaster an "oil spill" and instead says, "we are haemorrhaging". Others speak of the need to "make the bleeding stop". And I was personally struck, flying over the stretch of ocean where the Deepwater Horizon sank with the US Coast Guard, that the swirling shapes the oil made in the ocean waves looked remarkably like cave drawings: a feathery lung gasping for air, eyes staring upwards, a prehistoric bird. Messages from the deep.

And this is surely the strangest twist in the Gulf coast saga: it seems to be waking us up to the reality that the Earth never was a machine. After 400 years of being declared dead, and in the middle of so much death, the Earth is coming alive.

The experience of following the oil's progress through the ecosystem is a kind of crash course in deep ecology. Every day we learn more about how what seems to be a terrible problem in one isolated part of the world actually radiates out in ways most of us could never have imagined. One day we learn that the oil could reach Cuba – then Europe. Next we hear that fishermen all the way up the Atlantic in Prince Edward Island, Canada, are worried because the Bluefin tuna they catch off their shores are born thousands of miles away in those oil-stained Gulf waters. And we learn, too, that for birds, the Gulf coast wetlands are the equivalent of a busy airport hub – everyone seems to have a stopover: 110 species of migratory songbirds and 75% of all migratory US waterfowl.

It's one thing to be told by an incomprehensible chaos theorist that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas. It's another to watch chaos theory unfold before your eyes. Carolyn Merchant puts the lesson like this: "The problem as BP has tragically and belatedly discovered is that nature as an active force cannot be so confined." Predictable outcomes are unusual within ecological systems, while "unpredictable, chaotic events [are] usual". And just in case we still didn't get it, a few days ago, a bolt of lightning struck a BP ship like an exclamation mark, forcing it to suspend its containment efforts. And don't even mention what a hurricane would do to BP's toxic soup.

There is, it must be stressed, something uniquely twisted about this particular path to enlightenment. They say that Americans learn where foreign countries are by bombing them. Now it seems we are all learning about nature's circulatory systems by poisoning them.

In the late 90s, an isolated indigenous group in Colombia captured world headlines with an almost Avatar-esque conflict. From their remote home in the Andean cloud forests, the U'wa let it be known that if Occidental Petroleum carried out plans to drill for oil on their territory, they would commit mass ritual suicide by jumping off a cliff. Their elders explained that oil is part of ruiria, "the blood of Mother Earth". They believe that all life, including their own, flows from ruiria, so pulling out the oil would bring on their destruction. (Oxy eventually withdrew from the region, saying there wasn't as much oil as it had previously thought.)

Virtually all indigenous cultures have myths about gods and spirits living in the natural world – in rocks, mountains, glaciers, forests – as did European culture before the scientific revolution. Katja Neves, an anthropologist at Concordia University, points out that the practice serves a practical purpose. Calling the Earth "sacred" is another way of expressing humility in the face of forces we do not fully comprehend. When something is sacred, it demands that we proceed with caution. Even awe.

If we are absorbing this lesson at long last, the implications could be profound. Public support for increased offshore drilling is dropping precipitously, down 22% from the peak of the "Drill Now" frenzy. The issue is not dead, however. It is only a matter of time before the Obama administration announces that, thanks to ingenious new technology and tough new regulations, it is now perfectly safe to drill in the deep sea, even in the Arctic, where an under-ice clean up would be infinitely more complex than the one underway in the Gulf. But perhaps this time we won't be so easily reassured, so quick to gamble with the few remaining protected havens.

Same goes for geoengineering. As climate change negotiations wear on, we should be ready to hear more from Dr Steven Koonin, Obama's undersecretary of energy for science. He is one of the leading proponents of the idea that climate change can be combated with techno tricks like releasing sulphate and aluminium particles into the atmosphere – and of course it's all perfectly safe, just like Disneyland! He also happens to be BP's former chief scientist, the man who just 15 months ago was still overseeing the technology behind BP's supposedly safe charge into deepwater drilling. Maybe this time we will opt not to let the good doctor experiment with the physics and chemistry of the Earth, and choose instead to reduce our consumption and shift to renewable energies that have the virtue that, when they fail, they fail small. As US comedian Bill Maher put it, "You know what happens when windmills collapse into the sea? A splash."

The most positive possible outcome of this disaster would be not only an acceleration of renewable energy sources like wind, but a full embrace of the precautionary principle in science. The mirror opposite of Hayward's "If you knew you could not fail" credo, the precautionary principle holds that "when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health" we tread carefully, as if failure were possible, even likely. Perhaps we can even get Hayward a new desk plaque to contemplate as he signs compensation cheques. "You act like you know, but you don't know."

Naomi Klein visited the Gulf coast with a film-crew from Fault Lines, a documentary programme hosted by Avi Lewis on al-Jazeera English Television. She was a consultant on the film

Friday, June 11, 2010

Funny, and Yet, So Sad

If you'd like a little respite from the "greatest environmental disaster in the history of the United States," check out this Twitter spoof of Beyond Petroleum's PR.

Impossible Things...

Here's a great set of stats for those who still would love to believe that things here in the Empire aren't really all that bad, at least compared to other, more benighted nations (hah!). Quoted in its entirety:

50 Statistics About The U.S. Economy That Are Almost Too Crazy To Believe

Most Americans know that the U.S. economy is in bad shape, but what most Americans don't know is how truly desperate the financial situation of the United States really is. The truth is that what we are experiencing is not simply a "downturn" or a "recession". What we are witnessing is the beginning of the end for the greatest economic machine that the world has ever seen. Our greed and our debt are literally eating our economy alive. Total government, corporate and personal debt has now reached 360 percent of GDP, which is far higher than it ever reached during the Great Depression era. We have nearly totally dismantled our once colossal manufacturing base, we have shipped millions upon millions of middle class jobs overseas, we have lived far beyond our means for decades and we have created the biggest debt bubble in the history of the world. A great day of financial reckoning is fast approaching, and the vast majority of Americans are totally oblivious.

But the truth is that you cannot defy the financial laws of the universe forever. What goes up must come down. The borrower is the servant of the lender. Cutting corners always catches up with you in the end.

Sometimes it takes cold, hard numbers for many of us to fully realize the situation that we are facing.

So, the following are 50 very revealing statistics about the U.S. economy that are almost too crazy to believe....

#50) In 2010 the U.S. government is projected to issue almost as much new debt as the rest of the governments of the world combined.

#49) It is being projected that the U.S. government will have a budget deficit of approximately 1.6 trillion dollars in 2010.

#48) If you went out and spent one dollar every single second, it would take you more than 31,000 years to spend a trillion dollars.

#47) In fact, if you spent one million dollars every single day since the birth of Christ, you still would not have spent one trillion dollars by now.

#46) Total U.S. government debt is now up to 90 percent of gross domestic product.

#45) Total credit market debt in the United States, including government, corporate and personal debt, has reached 360 percent of GDP.

#44) U.S. corporate income tax receipts were down 55% (to $138 billion) for the year ending September 30th, 2009.

#43) There are now 8 counties in the state of California that have unemployment rates of over 20 percent.

#42) In the area around Sacramento, California there is one closed business for every six that are still open.

#41) In February, there were 5.5 unemployed Americans for every job opening.

#40) According to a Pew Research Center study, approximately 37% of all Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have either been unemployed or underemployed at some point during the recession.

#39) More than 40% of those employed in the United States are now working in low-wage service jobs.

#38) According to one new survey, 24% of American workers say that they have postponed their planned retirement age in the past year.

#37) Over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, which represented a 32 percent increase over 2008. Not only that, more Americans filed for bankruptcy in March 2010 than during any month since U.S. bankruptcy law was tightened in October 2005.

#36) Mortgage purchase applications in the United States are down nearly 40 percent from a month ago to their lowest level since April of 1997.

#35) RealtyTrac has announced that foreclosure filings in the U.S. established an all time record for the second consecutive year in 2009.

#34) According to RealtyTrac, foreclosure filings were reported on 367,056 properties in March 2010, an increase of nearly 19 percent from February, an increase of nearly 8 percent from March 2009 and the highest monthly total since RealtyTrac began issuing its report in January 2005.

#33) In Pinellas and Pasco counties, which include St. Petersburg, Florida and the suburbs to the north, there are 34,000 open foreclosure cases. Ten years ago, there were only about 4,000.

#32) In California's Central Valley, 1 out of every 16 homes is in some phase of foreclosure.

#31) The Mortgage Bankers Association recently announced that more than 10 percent of all U.S. homeowners with a mortgage had missed at least one payment during the January to March time period. That was a record high and up from 9.1 percent a year ago.

#30) U.S. banks repossessed nearly 258,000 homes nationwide in the first quarter of 2010, a 35 percent jump from the first quarter of 2009.

#29) For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.

#28) More than 24% of all homes with mortgages in the United States were underwater as of the end of 2009.

#27) U.S. commercial property values are down approximately 40 percent since 2007 and currently 18 percent of all office space in the United States is sitting vacant.

#26) Defaults on apartment building mortgages held by U.S. banks climbed to a record 4.6 percent in the first quarter of 2010. That was almost twice the level of a year earlier.

#25) In 2009, U.S. banks posted their sharpest decline in private lending since 1942.

#24) New York state has delayed paying bills totalling $2.5 billion as a short-term way of staying solvent but officials are warning that its cash crunch could soon get even worse.

#23) To make up for a projected 2010 budget shortfall of $280 million, Detroit issued $250 million of 20-year municipal notes in March. The bond issuance followed on the heels of a warning from Detroit officials that if its financial state didn't improve, it could be forced to declare bankruptcy.

#22) The National League of Cities says that municipal governments will probably come up between $56 billion and $83 billion short between now and 2012.

#21) Half a dozen cash-poor U.S. states have announced that they are delaying their tax refund checks.

#20) Two university professors recently calculated that the combined unfunded pension liability for all 50 U.S. states is 3.2 trillion dollars.

#19) According to, 32 U.S. states have already run out of funds to make unemployment benefit payments and so the federal government has been supplying these states with funds so that they can make their payments to the unemployed.

#18) This most recession has erased 8 million private sector jobs in the United States.

#17) Paychecks from private business shrank to their smallest share of personal income in U.S. history during the first quarter of 2010.

#16) U.S. government-provided benefits (including Social Security, unemployment insurance, food stamps and other programs) rose to a record high during the first three months of 2010.

#15) 39.68 million Americans are now on food stamps, which represents a new all-time record. But things look like they are going to get even worse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is forecasting that enrollment in the food stamp program will exceed 43 million Americans in 2011.

#14) Phoenix, Arizona features an astounding annual car theft rate of 57,000 vehicles and has become the new "Car Theft Capital of the World".

#13) U.S. law enforcement authorities claim that there are now over 1 million members of criminal gangs inside the country. These 1 million gang members are responsible for up to 80% of the crimes committed in the United States each year.

#12) The U.S. health care system was already facing a shortage of approximately 150,000 doctors in the next decade or so, but thanks to the health care "reform" bill passed by Congress, that number could swell by several hundred thousand more.

#11) According to an analysis by the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation the health care "reform" bill will generate $409.2 billion in additional taxes on the American people by 2019.

#10) The Dow Jones Industrial Average just experienced the worst May it has seen since 1940.

#9) In 1950, the ratio of the average executive's paycheck to the average worker's paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one.

#8) Approximately 40% of all retail spending currently comes from the 20% of American households that have the highest incomes.

#7) According to economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two-thirds of income increases in the U.S. between 2002 and 2007 went to the wealthiest 1% of all Americans.

#6) The bottom 40 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.

#5) If you only make the minimum payment each and every time, a $6,000 credit card bill can end up costing you over $30,000 (depending on the interest rate).

#4) According to a new report based on U.S. Census Bureau data, only 26 percent of American teens between the ages of 16 and 19 had jobs in late 2009 which represents a record low since statistics began to be kept back in 1948.

#3) According to a National Foundation for Credit Counseling survey, only 58% of those in "Generation Y" pay their monthly bills on time.

#2) During the first quarter of 2010, the total number of loans that are at least three months past due in the United States increased for the 16th consecutive quarter.

#1) According to the Tax Foundation’s Microsimulation Model, to erase the 2010 U.S. budget deficit, the U.S. Congress would have to multiply each tax rate by 2.4. Thus, the 10 percent rate would be 24 percent, the 15 percent rate would be 36 percent, and the 35 percent rate would have to be 85 percent.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What Went Wrong? Here's a List...

Shamelessly stolen from sage commentator "Numerian" over at The Agonist...posted in response to the question "where's the outrage" among the US public over, oh, the greatest environmental disaster in US history, and the public's blase response. Nicely done, fellow.

It all began in 1980

Or right around then, with the election of Ronald Reagan and the opportunity for right-wing extremists to begin reshaping society. Undoing this work will take ten years or more, and that is if society has a brutal awakening regarding what has happened. That is by no means a sure thing considering what was done. Here is a list of "20 Theses" showing what the right wing has wrought, and how difficult it will be to undo all this:

1) The elevation of the corporation as the supreme social structure in society, superior to the political process, and in possession of rights normally restricted to the people.
2) The creation of an oligarchical command structure consisting of prominent and wealthy businessmen, politicians, media figures, military leaders, intellectual and other consultants, and religious entertainers, who can use political, economic and social power to advance their personal interests over those of society.
3) The abolishment of the death tax as society's best and last means of preventing dynastic wealth, and the use of nepotism to advance the careers of the children of oligarchical figures.
4) The development of crony capitalism, whereby the oligarchy can exert its corporate power to protect their personal wealth.
5) The glorification of the markets and mercantile capitalism as a means of allocating society's wealth and resolving social problems, along with data mining and equity extraction as tools to collect rents from the markets for the benefit of the oligarchical class.
6) The rise of the cult of the individual, and the use of personal wealth and conspicuous consumption as a measure of individual merit.
7) The identification of poverty and want as personal failures.
8) The identification of the government as a source of problems, rather than as a protector of the needy and regulator of the powerful.
9) The embrace of globalization as a way to open vast new consumer markets to corporations, despite the cost in living standards to the average individual in developed economies.
10) The discovery of debt as a means of ensuring economic growth and masking the deterioration in living standards of the people.
11) The suborning of the media by placing them under the control of large corporate and oligarchical powers.
12) The use of the big lie and hypocrisy as tools to achieve and wield political or economic power.
13) The marginalization of the voting process through gerrymandering of Congressional districts, the use of opaque computer vote-counting techniques, the emphasis on candidate personalities rather than issues, and the dramatic escalation of campaign costs so that only corporate-sponsored candidates may compete.
14) The establishment of "enemies within" - liberals, minorities, women, gays, immigrants and others - to replace the external enemy of Communism as a vote-getting device, at least until a new external enemy arose in the form of Islamic extremism.
15) The abandonment of historic civil rights, such as habeas corpus, protections against illegal searches, or torture, all in the name of providing "security", as well as the relegation of the Constitution to the status of "a piece of paper", and the rule of law as an outmoded legal construct.
16) The elimination of the draft, and the use of mercenaries, to allow for the pursuit of war without inconvenience to the people at large, and for the creation of a military empire abroad.
17) The use of patriotism to prevent any questioning of military actions, and the introduction of military techniques on domestic soil, including the creation of a surveillance state.
18) The attack on science and rationality, in pursuit of religious and political agendas.
19) The development of a celebrity culture as a means of distracting the people from real social problems.
20) The hijacking of religion to advance the interests of the powerful and wealthy, including use of the "prosperity gospel" to promote mercantile capitalism, and social markers such as abortion and gay marriage to obtain votes from religious sects.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Oil Spill In The Gulf: Chris Hedges

Well, it could be the greatest environmental disaster in the history of humans...but even if it's not, it's still worth getting some perspective from Chris Hedges. If you haven't read War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, you're missing out. Well, here's his latest, quoted in full:

BP and the ‘Little Eichmanns’
Posted on May 17, 2010

By Chris Hedges

Cultures that do not recognize that human life and the natural world have a sacred dimension, an intrinsic value beyond monetary value, cannibalize themselves until they die. They ruthlessly exploit the natural world and the members of their society in the name of progress until exhaustion or collapse, blind to the fury of their own self-destruction. The oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, estimated to be perhaps as much as 100,000 barrels a day, is part of our foolish death march. It is one more blow delivered by the corporate state, the trade of life for gold. But this time collapse, when it comes, will not be confined to the geography of a decayed civilization. It will be global.

Those who carry out this global genocide—men like BP’s Chief Executive Tony Hayward, who assures us that “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume’’—are, to steal a line from Ward Churchill, “little Eichmanns.” They serve Thanatos, the forces of death, the dark instinct Sigmund Freud identified within human beings that propels us to annihilate all living things, including ourselves. These deformed individuals lack the capacity for empathy. They are at once banal and dangerous. They possess the peculiar ability to organize vast, destructive bureaucracies and yet remain blind to the ramifications. The death they dispense, whether in the pollutants and carcinogens that have made cancer an epidemic, the dead zone rapidly being created in the Gulf of Mexico, the melting polar ice caps or the deaths last year of 45,000 Americans who could not afford proper medical care, is part of the cold and rational exchange of life for money.

The corporations, and those who run them, consume, pollute, oppress and kill. The little Eichmanns who manage them reside in a parallel universe of staggering wealth, luxury and splendid isolation that rivals that of the closed court of Versailles. The elite, sheltered and enriched, continue to prosper even as the rest of us and the natural world start to die. They are numb. They will drain the last drop of profit from us until there is nothing left. And our business schools and elite universities churn out tens of thousands of these deaf, dumb and blind systems managers who are endowed with sophisticated skills of management and the incapacity for common sense, compassion or remorse. These technocrats mistake the art of manipulation with knowledge.

“The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else,” Hannah Arendt wrote of “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” “No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”

Our ruling class of technocrats, as John Ralston Saul points out, is effectively illiterate. “One of the reasons that he is unable to recognize the necessary relationship between power and morality is that moral traditions are the product of civilization and he has little knowledge of his own civilization,” Saul writes of the technocrat. Saul calls these technocrats “hedonists of power,” and warns that their “obsession with structures and their inability or unwillingness to link these to the public good make this power an abstract force—a force that works, more often than not, at cross-purposes to the real needs of a painfully real world.”

BP, which made $6.1 billion in profits in the first quarter of this year, never obtained permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The protection of the ecosystem did not matter. But BP is hardly alone. Drilling with utter disregard to the ecosystem is common practice among oil companies, according to a report in The New York Times. Our corporate state has gutted environmental regulation as tenaciously as it has gutted financial regulation and habeas corpus. Corporations make no distinction between our personal impoverishment and the impoverishment of the ecosystem that sustains the human species. And the abuse, of us and the natural world, is as rampant under Barack Obama as it was under George W. Bush. The branded figure who sits in the White House is a puppet, a face used to mask an insidious system under which we as citizens have been disempowered and under which we become, along with the natural world, collateral damage. As Karl Marx understood, unfettered capitalism is a revolutionary force. And this force is consuming us.

Karl Polanyi in his book “The Great Transformation,” written in 1944, laid out the devastating consequences—the depressions, wars and totalitarianism—that grow out of a so-called self-regulated free market. He grasped that “fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that refused to function.” He warned that a financial system always devolved, without heavy government control, into a Mafia capitalism—and a Mafia political system—which is a good description of our corporate government. Polanyi warned that when nature and human beings are objects whose worth is determined by the market, then human beings and nature are destroyed. Speculative excesses and growing inequality, he wrote, always dynamite the foundation for a continued prosperity and ensure “the demolition of society.”

“In disposing of a man’s labor power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity ‘man’ attached to that tag,” Polanyi wrote. “Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed. Finally, the market administration of purchasing power would periodically liquidate business enterprise, for shortages and surfeits of money would prove as disastrous to business as floods and droughts in primitive society. Undoubtedly, labor, land, and money markets are essential to a market economy. But no society could stand the effects of such a system of crude fictions even for the shortest stretch of time unless its human and natural substance as well as its business organizations was protected against the ravages of this satanic mill.”

The corporate state is a runaway freight train. It shreds the Kyoto Accords in Copenhagen. It plunders the U.S. Treasury so speculators can continue to gamble with billions in taxpayer subsidies in our perverted system of casino capitalism. It disenfranchises our working class, decimates our manufacturing sector and denies us funds to sustain our infrastructure, our public schools and our social services. It poisons the planet. We are losing, every year across the globe, an area of farmland greater than Scotland to erosion and urban sprawl. There are an estimated 25,000 people who die every day somewhere in the world because of contaminated water. And some 20 million children are mentally impaired each year by malnourishment.

America is dying in the manner in which all imperial projects die. Joseph Tainter, in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” argues that the costs of running and defending an empire eventually become so burdensome, and the elite becomes so calcified, that it becomes more efficient to dismantle the imperial superstructures and return to local forms of organization. At that point the great monuments to empire, from the Sumer and Mayan temples to the Roman bath complexes, are abandoned, fall into disuse and are overgrown. But this time around, Tainter warns, because we have nowhere left to migrate and expand, “world civilization will disintegrate as a whole.” This time around we will take the planet down with us.

“We in the lucky countries of the West now regard our two-century bubble of freedom and affluence as normal and inevitable; it has even been called the ‘end’ of history, in both a temporal and teleological sense,” writes Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress.” “Yet this new order is an anomaly: the opposite of what usually happens as civilizations grow. Our age was bankrolled by the seizing of half the planet, extended by taking over most of the remaining half, and has been sustained by spending down new forms of natural capital, especially fossil fuels. In the New World, the West hit the biggest bonanza of all time. And there won’t be another like it—not unless we find the civilized Martians of H.G. Wells, complete with the vulnerability to our germs that undid them in his War of the Worlds.”

The moral and physical contamination is matched by a cultural contamination. Our political and civil discourse has become gibberish. It is dominated by elaborate spectacles, celebrity gossip, the lies of advertising and scandal. The tawdry and the salacious occupy our time and energy. We do not see the walls falling around us. We invest our intellectual and emotional energy in the inane and the absurd, the empty amusements that preoccupy a degenerate culture, so that when the final collapse arrives we can be herded, uncomprehending and fearful, into the inferno.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Complexity and Sustainability: Joseph Tainter

This paper, quoted in its entirety, deserves a much larger audience. Too bad Chaos has been so lax lately, that readers have probably fled! Oh well...anyhow, here is the eminent authority of collapse, on sustainability:

Human Resource Use: Timing and Implications for Sustainability
Joseph A. Tainter
Department of Environment and Society, Utah State University, Logan, Utah 84322, U.S.A.


Few questions of history have been more enduring than how today’s complex societies evolved from the foraging bands of our ancestors. While this might seem of academic interest, it has important implications for anticipating our future. Our understanding of sustainability depends to a surprising degree on our understanding of the human past. My purposes today are to show that the conventional understandings of cultural evolution are untenable, as are assumptions about sustainability that follow from them, and to present a different approach to assessing our future.

Cultural complexity is deeply embedded in our contemporary self image. Colloquially it is known by the more common term “civilization,” which we believe our ancestors achieved through the phenomenon called “progress.” The concepts of civilization and progress have a status in the cosmology of industrial societies that amounts to what anthropologists call “ancestor myths.” Ancestor myths validate a contemporary social order by presenting it as a natural and sometimes heroic progression from earlier times.

Social scientists label this a “progressivist” view. It supposes that cultural complexity is intentional, that it emerged through the inventiveness of our ancestors. Progressivism is the dominant ideology of free-market societies. But inventiveness is not a sufficient explanation for cultural complexity, which requires facilitating circumstances. What were those circumstances? Prehistorians once thought they had the answer: The discovery of agriculture gave our ancestors surplus food and, concomitantly, free time to invent urbanism and the things that comprise “civilization”–cities, artisans, priesthoods, kings, aristocracies, and all of the other features of early states.

The progressivist view posits a specific relationship between resources and complexity. It is that complexity develops because it can, and that the factor facilitating this is surplus energy. Energy precedes complexity and allows it to emerge. There are, however, significant reasons to doubt whether surplus energy has actually driven much of cultural evolution.

One strand of thought that challenges progressivism emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries in the works of Wallace (1761), Malthus (1798), and Jevons. The economist Kenneth Boulding derived from Malthus’s essay on population three theorems: the Dismal Theorem, the Utterly Dismal Theorem, and the moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem. The Utterly Dismal Theorem directly challenges the progressivist view:

Any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for as long as misery is the only check on population, the improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population, which is to increase the sum total of human misery (Boulding, 1959: vii [emphases in original]).

The implication of this strain of thought is that humans have rarely had surplus energy. Surpluses are quickly dissipated by growth in consumption. Since humans have rarely had surpluses, the availability of energy cannot be the primary driver of cultural evolution.

Beyond a Malthusian view, there is another factor that undermines progressivism. It is that complexity costs. In any living system, increased complexity (involving differentiation in structure and increasing organization) carries a metabolic cost. In non-human species this is a straightforward matter of additional calories. Among humans the cost is calculated in such currencies as resources, effort, time, or money, or by more subtle matters such as annoyance. While humans find complexity appealing in spheres such as art, music, or architecture, we usually prefer that someone else pay the cost. We are averse to complexity when it unalterably increases the cost of daily life without a clear benefit to the individual or household. Before the development of fossil fuels, increasing the complexity and costliness of a society meant that people worked harder.

The development of complexity is thus a paradox of human history. Over the past 12,000 years, we have developed technologies, economies, and social institutions that cost more labor, time, money, energy, and annoyance, and that go against our aversion to such costs. Why, then, did human societies ever become more complex?

At least part of the answer is that complexity is a basic problem-solving tool. Confronted with problems, we often respond by developing more complex technologies, establishing new institutions, adding more specialists or bureaucratic levels to an institution, increasing organization or regulation, or gathering and processing more information. While we usually prefer not to bear the cost of complexity, our problem-solving efforts are powerful complexity generators. All that is needed for growth of complexity is a problem that requires it. Since problems continually arise, there is persistent pressure for complexity to increase.

Cultural complexity can be viewed as an economic function. Societies and institutions invest in problem solving, undertaking costs and expecting benefits in return. In problem-solving systems, inexpensive solutions are adopted before more complex and expensive ones. In the history of human food-gathering and production, for example, labor-sparing hunting and gathering gave way to more labor-intensive agriculture, which in some places has been replaced by industrial agriculture that consumes more energy than it produces. We produce minerals and energy whenever possible from the most economical sources. Our societies have changed from egalitarian relations, economic reciprocity, ad hoc leadership, and generalized roles to social and economic differentiation, specialization, inequality, and full-time leadership. These characteristics are the essence of complexity, and they increase the costliness of any society.

In the progressivist view, surplus energy precedes and facilitates the evolution of complexity. Certainly this is sometimes true: There have been occasions when humans adopted energy sources of such great potential that, with further development and positive feedback, there followed great expansions in the numbers of humans and the wealth and complexity of societies. These occasions have, however, been so rare that we designate them with terms signifying a new era: the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. It is worth noting that these unusual transitions have not resulted from unbridled human creativity. Rather, they emerged from solutions to problems of resource shortages, and were adopted reluctantly because initially they created diminishing returns on effort in peoples’ daily lives.

Most of the time, cultural complexity increases from day-to-day efforts to solve problems. Complexity that emerges in this way will usually appear before there is additional energy to support it. Rather than following the availability of energy, cultural complexity often precedes it. Complexity thus compels increases in resource production. This understanding of the temporal relationship between complexity and resources has implications for sustainability that diverge from what is commonly assumed. I will explore these implications shortly. It is useful first to present a historical case study, the Western Roman Empire, that illustrates these points.

The Roman Empire collapsed in the mid 5th century A.D., but its last 200 years of existence had been a reprieve. It had been nearly destroyed in the 3rd century. In the half-century from 235-284 the empire was repeatedly breached by invasions of Germanic peoples from the north and the Persians from the east. When these invaders were not being repelled, Roman armies were fighting each other in the service of would-be emperors. Many cities were sacked and productive lands devastated. For a time, rival empires broke away in the east and the west. It seemed that the Roman Empire would not survive much longer.

The Roman government had a clear sustainability goal: the survival of the empire. In response to the crises, the emperors Diocletian and Constantine, in the late third and early fourth centuries, designed a government that was larger, more complex, and more highly organized. They doubled the size of the army. This was very costly. To pay for this sustainability effort, the government taxed its citizens more heavily, conscripted their labor, and dictated their occupations.

With the rise in taxes, population could not recover from plagues in the second and third centuries. There were chronic shortages of labor. Marginal lands went out of cultivation. Faced with taxes, peasants would abandon their lands and flee to the protection of a wealthy landowner. The Roman Empire survived the 3rd century crisis and achieved two centuries of sustainability, but at the long-term cost of consuming its capital resources: producing lands and peasant population. When crises emerged again in the late 4th century, the empire lacked the resources to respond adequately and in time collapsed.

The Roman Empire is a single case study in complexity and problem solving, but it is an important and representative one. It illustrates the basic process by which societies increase in complexity. Societies adopt increasing complexity to solve problems, becoming at the same time more costly. In the normal course of economic evolution, this process at some point will produce diminishing returns. Once diminishing returns set in, a problem-solving institution must either find new resources to continue the activity, or fund the activity by reducing the share of resources available to other economic sectors. The latter is likely to produce economic contraction, popular discontent, and eventual collapse. This was the fate of the Western Roman Empire.

This understanding of complexity and resources has implications for understanding sustainability. Both popular and academic discourse commonly assume that (a) future sustainability requires that industrial societies consume a lower quantity of resources than is now the case, and (b) sustainability will result automatically if we do so. Sustainability emerges, in this view, as a passive consequence of consuming less. Thus sustainability efforts are commonly focused on reducing consumption through voluntary or enforced conservation, perhaps involving simplification, and/or through improvements in technical efficiencies.

The common perspective on sustainability follows logically from the progressivist view that resources precede and facilitate innovations that increase complexity. Complexity, in this view, is voluntary. Human societies become more complex by choice. By this reasoning, we should be able to forego complexity and the resource consumption that it entails. Progressivism leads to the notion that societies can deliberately reduce their use of resources and thereby achieve sustainability.

The fact that complexity and costliness increase through mundane problem solving suggests a different and startling conclusion: Contrary to what is typically advocated as the route to sustainability, it is usually not possible for a society to reduce its consumption of resources voluntarily over the long term. To the contrary, as problems great and small inevitably arise, addressing these problems requires complexity and resource consumption to increase. As illustrated by the Roman Empire and other cases, this has commonly been the case.

Many advocates of sustainability will find it disturbing that long-term conservation is not possible. Naturally we must ask: Are there alternatives to this process? Regrettably, no simple solutions are evident. Consider some of the approaches commonly advocated:

1. Voluntarily Reduce Resource Consumption. While this may work for a time, its longevity as a strategy is constrained by the fact that societies increase in complexity to solve problems. Resource production must grow to fund the increased complexity. To implement voluntary conservation long term would require that a society be either uniquely lucky in not being challenged by problems, or that it not address the problems that confront it.

2. Employ the Price Mechanism to Control Resource Consumption. This is currently the laissez-faire strategy of industrialized nations. Since humans don’t commonly forego affordable consumption of desired goods and services, economists consider it more effective than voluntary conservation. Both approaches, however, lead eventually to the same outcome: As problems arise, resource consumption must increase at the societal level even if consumers as individuals purchase less.

3. Ration Resources. Because of its unpopularity, rationing is possible in democracies only for clear, short-term emergencies. This is illustrated by the reactions to rationing in England and the United States during World War II. Moreover, rationed resources may become needed to solve societal problems, belying any attempt to conserve through rationing. Something like this can be seen in the fiscal stimulus programs enacted recently.

4. Reduce Population. While this would reduce aggregate resource consumption temporarily, as a long-term strategy it has the same fatal flaw: Problems will emerge that require solutions, and those solutions will compel resource production to grow.

5. Hope for Technological Solutions. I sometimes call this a faith-based approach to our future. Members of industrialized societies are socialized to believe that we can always find a technological solution to resource problems. Technology, within the framework of this belief, will presumably allow us continually to reduce our resource consumption per unit of material well-being. Conventional economics teaches that to bring this about we need only the price mechanism and unfettered markets. The flaw here was pointed out by William Stanley Jevons: As technological improvements reduce the cost of using a resource, total consumption will actually increase.

In conclusion, sustainability is not the achievement of stasis. It is not a passive consequence of having fewer humans who consume more limited resources. One must work at being sustainable. The challenges that any society (or other institution) might confront are, for practical purposes, endless in number and infinite in variety. This being so, sustainability is a matter of solving problems.

In the conventional view, complexity follows energy. If so, then we should be able to forego complexity voluntarily and reduce our consumption of the resources that it requires. This approach to sustainability implicitly sees the future as a condition of stasis with no challenges.

In actuality, major infusions of surplus energy are rare in human history. More commonly, complexity increases in response to problems. Complexity emerging through problem solving typically precedes the availability of energy, and compels increases in its production. Complexity is not something that we can ordinarily choose to forego.

Applying this understanding leads to two conclusions. The first is that the solutions commonly recommended to promote sustainability–conservation, simplification, pricing, and innovation–can do so only in the short term. Secondly, long-term sustainability depends on solving major societal problems that will converge in coming decades, and this will require increasing complexity and energy production. Sustainability is not a condition of stasis. It is, rather, a process of continuous adaptation, of perpetually addressing new or ongoing problems and securing the resources to do so.

It is useful to think of sustainability in the metaphor of an athletic game: It is possible to “lose”–that is, to become unsustainable, as happened to the Western Roman Empire. But the converse does not hold. Because we continually confront challenges, there is no point at which a society has “won”–become sustainable in perpetuity, or at least for a very long time. Success, rather, consists of staying in the game.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An Interview With Dr. Bartlett

Here's a nice interview with our favorite Malthusian, Dr. Albert Bartlett, Professor Emeritus, Physics, University of Colorado at Boulder. Enjoy!

I have to thank Jeremy Grantham for referencing Albert Bartlett’s talk, “Arithmetic, Population, & Energy”, in his semi annual letter to partners. It inspired me to track down Professor Bartlett and interview him for our readers.


Professor Albert Bartlett Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In the public space Professor Bartlett is most well known for his lecture titled Arithmetic, Population, and Energy. A Lecture he has given over 1,600 times since September, 1969. Bartlett joined the faculty of the University of Colorado in Boulder in September 1950. His B.A. degree in physics is from Colgate University (1944) and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in physics are from Harvard University (1948), (1951). In 1978 he was national president of the American Association of Physics Teachers. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1969 and 1970 he served two terms as the elected Chair of the four-campus Faculty Council of the University of Colorado.

Question & Answers (Copyright 2009-2010 Miguel Barbosa & Albert Bartlett)

You have become very famous for your talk, “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy.” What motivated you to create this talk?

In the late 1960’s I began to realize that people didn’t understand the large numbers that result from steady growth rates. So, forty years ago I developed the talk; I’ve given it an average of once every 8.7 days for 40 years.

Why do you think people have such difficulty understanding (compounding) growth rates?

It’s arithmetic; people don’t like arithmetic. You hear it at cocktail parties. People say, “Oh, I’m terrible at arithmetic.” You never hear anyone say “I can’t read or write.” My impression is that after my talk people understand it very quickly. Years ago I gave it very slowly and in two parts to junior high school students. After the second part, two little kids came up and said, “We can understand it, why can’t grownups?”

You’re a physicist; how did you become interested in physics? And how did you land a job at Los Alamos?

I had a high school physics course that I enjoyed very much. After high school I went to college, but dropped out to work on steamboats in the Great Lakes. After working for a while, I transferred to Colgate University, took my first college physics class, did well, and stuck with it. Richard Feynman once said, “If there was anything more fun than physics I’d be doing it.”…He couldn’t seem to find anything more fun. The same applies to me.

Did you meet Richard Feynman?

Yes. I was at Los Alamos during the war…whenever he would lecture the entire lab would stop to listen to him. He was simultaneously a great physicist and a great clown.

What about Niels Bohr? Tell us about your experiences meeting with him.

“I was sitting at the lunch counter and Niels Bohr sat down beside me. I was amazed.” What was it like being around these scientists? I was in constant awe. I’d often ask myself how ended up in such a place. I barely had a Bachelors degree. But that was sufficient to get me into these secret meetings. I went religiously to those meeting and one thing led to another.

Do you think most politicians understand growth rates, but prefer to look the other way?

These are chamber of commerce types: promoters, builders, architects. Their business is promoting growth. But the single thing to note is that, both at the community level and national level, growth doesn’t pay for itself. The more you grow the greater your debt load. Colorado has had decades of wild and largely uncontrolled growth and is now practically bankrupt. People become fed up with the constant increases in taxes needed to pay the costs of growth and they vote for tax limitation measures. Unfortunately, the growth promoters seem to find ways around these limitations, so the growth continues and the consequent problems escalate rapidly. We can see this happening in California and we have a similar situation brewing in Colorado.

What you are implying is that true growth would lead to profitability and thus state governments could accumulate reserves?

Rational people (leaders) would have reserves for lean years. In fact this reminds me – there’s a little book called, “Better Not Bigger” by Eben Fodor. He looks at the municipal costs of growth in various communities. He estimates that every new house built in Oregon costs the Oregon taxpayer something in the order of $25,000 in costs not paid by taxes on the construction of the home itself.

This reminds us of utilities companies…

Utilities right now are fighting around the country to get more coal and nuclear plants around the country. What they are really fighting for, and what they normally get, is the right to tax customers for the costs of planning and construction. . In a more rational world the investors would bear these responsibilities, and when the plant was finished you could figure the cost into the rate system- so that the people that built it would be reimbursed. Now, rather than going out and borrowing money they want to get money from rate payers while they are planning. Often state regulators are allowing utilities to charge payers for planning costs- and it isn’t even clear that the plants will be built. This is a perpetual growth promoting situation.

If companies grew for very long periods at high rates (say 15% plus) within a matter of years we would all be working forthem.

Some investors fail to realize that growth eventually undoes itself. That is to say growth is mean reverting. For you or me any additional physical growth would either be; obesity or cancer. There’s a time to grow, yet when you reach maturity any further growth is detrimental.

Your book titled, “The Essential Exponential for the Future of our Planet,” contains a chapter called, “Democracy Cannot Survive Overpopulation,” in which you argue convincingly that overpopulation, by raising the number of constituents per elected official, makes it harder for individuals to gain access to representatives and have a voice in politics. Also, overpopulation breeds government regulation to cope with problems caused by population pressure.

Yes, this is a very important issue. To be exact, I took the title of the chapter from Issac Asimov. Here’s an example: When I moved to Boulder Colorado (in 1950) the population was 20,000 and there were 9 city members on the council. Today the population is 100,000 and there are still only 9 city members on the council. So in effect today we only have 20% of the democracy we use to have in 1950.

In essence, it’s harder for the individual to have access to a representative?

Of course. In the decade of the 1990’s the US population grew by 13.1%, while the number of members in the House of Representatives didn’t grow at all. So we can say that at the national level, democracy declined by 13.1% Furthermore, the Constitution requires that the government perform what is called redistricting. This happens after every census. Redistricting ensures that the populations of districts are equal across the country. In our example, the average district needed to have 13.1% more constituents after the 2000 census than after the 1990’s census. This means that every district went from approximately 600,000 constituents to approximately 700,000 constituents. Compare that with the first Congress where the makeup was 30,000 constituents per member of Congress. It’s true that women didn’t vote and thus the electorate makeup was different, but you can imagine one person in Congress representing 30,000. It’s much harder to imagine one person representing 700,000 people. Every district in the country had to grow by 100,000 people. There’s no way you can represent that many people. So it’s much easier as a politician to take your ideas from the lobbyist who has plenty of money. As a result we now often get one dollar-one vote versus what use to be one person-one vote.

Are you suggesting there’s a crowding out effect? That is to say, in a time of many important issues (global warming, health care, and financial crises) people are alienated?

Yes, that’s right.

You say the terms “sustainable” and “sustainability” are popularly used to describe “activities that are ecologically laudable,” but unsustainable. How can the average reader interested in learning about sustainability decide whether publications are seeking to illuminate or obfuscate? Slogans are seemingly designed to “sustain” optimistm and vagueness.

There are a few organizations devoted to alert people of the dangers of population growth. There’s a group called Californians for Population Stabilization. There’s a real good group in Washington called Negative Population Growth; they have the best series of monographs of any group I’m aware of. You can find them on the web at

How do you approach reading periodicals that present confusing growth rates?

I approach periodicals with skepticism and look for absurdities. Remember that politicians will try to claim that there isn’t a conflict between saving the environment and smart growth. Unfortunately, both smart growth and dumb growth destroy the environment. The only difference is that smart growth destroys the environment with good taste. It’s like buying a ticket on the Titanic, if you’re smart you go first class. But the outcome is the same…the boat still sinks.

Well if the outcome is the same, then most sustainable solutions are pseudosolutions. Tells us about pseudosolutions…

It’s so discouraging when you see Al Gore’s book & film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Early in his book he says population growth has changed our whole way of life. With those words he is saying that he understands that population growth is the cause of the problem. Unfortunately at the end of his book when outlining the things you can do to avoid environmental problems (changing bulbs etc), Gore never mentions curbing population growth. This behavior is what Mark Twain would call a “silent lie.” If you have information that would help other people if you shared it, but you kee it hidden. Then you are guilty of what Mark Twain would call a silent lie.

In 1994, you wrote “In the manner of Alice in Wonderland, and without regard for accuracy or consistency, ‘sustainability’ seems to have been redefined flexibly to suit a variety of wishes and conveniences.” How are you seeing sustainability used by current politicians and businesses? Has it gotten worse? And what are the most recent clear examples of misuse of sustainability by politicians?

I couldn’t quantify it, but I believe so. Everything now is called “sustainable.” It’s the “in” thing to do, whether it’s sustainable or not.

According to your interpretation of the Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968) your writings suggest that there will always be large opposition to programs of making population growth pay for itself. Those who profit from (uneconomic)growth will use their considerable resources to convince the community that the community should pay the costs of growth. How does the tragedy of the commons relate to launching wars?

The world’s oceans are a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons. By and large they are unmanaged commons and they are destroyed by high tech fisheries. This is tragic for local fishermen who have lived off the oceans for centuries. Small conflicts over resources can lead to wars.”

When it comes to war… look at Iraq. The poor GIs getting shot and killed are paying an enormous cost. Bush seems to think there is a law of conservation of terrorists, that is to say, “There are a certain number of terrorists in the world and you kill them all and you solve the problem.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem at all. We aren’t reducing terrorism; rather, we are increasing it.

Where does the role of economist, Kenneth Boulding, play into the topic of population growth?

He’s one of the few economists that I can respect. He was a colleague at the University of Colorado. He is known for saying that, “Anyone who thinks that steady growth can continue indefinitely, is either a madman or an economist.” I once asked Boulding if he said that, he gave me a funny smile and said, “Yes, I think so.” Boulding’s three laws are related to sustainability. In fact, in my opinion, they say it all. The second law is the important one. It says, the solution to problems create more problems. “The main source of problems is solutions.

Excerpt of Boulding’s Three Laws:

First Theorem: “The Dismal Theorem” If the only ultimate check on the growth of population is misery, then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.

Second Theorem: “The Utterly Dismal Theorem” This theorem states that any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the only check on population, the [technical] improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of [technical] improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population which is to increase the total sum of human misery.

Third Theorem: “The moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem” Fortunately, it is not too difficult to restate the Dismal Theorem in a moderately cheerful form, which states that if something else, other than misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and starves, and it can be stably prosperous. Until we know more, the Cheerful Theorem remains a question mark. Misery we know will do the trick. This is the only sure- fire automatic method of bringing population to equilibrium. Other things may do it.

This is reminiscent of Eric Sevareid’s Law – The Chief Cause of Problems is Solutions. In a society as complex as ours is there a way around this issue?

I don’t believe there is a way around this issue. In a society as complex as ours it’s impossible to anticipate the interaction of all agents. It’s very much like the operation of the National Electric Grid. No one knows exactly how it operates. So if a squirrel crosses the wrong power line the east coast can go without power. These things do in fact happen. More importantly, because our system is so complex it’s vulnerable. If we are talking about a war on terror we wouldn’t want such a vulnerable system.

In preparation for this interview you sent us a book review. My favorite quote from this review is the following: “A society that is totally dependent on high tech for the functioning of every aspect of the lives of its people is vulnerable to disruption by acts of God and acts of people. The complexities of our pres¬ent infrastructure predictably lead to unpredictable failures. More complex infrastructures anticipated for the future will probably experience larger unpredictable failures.”

There is big talk in Europe right now about putting large fields of solar collectors in the Sahara Desert and then transmitting the power under the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. It looks good on paper, but the long extended transmission lines will be vulnerable to the forces of nature and to terrorists. A small group of individuals could deprive Europe of a big fraction of its electricity for long periods of time. “Insanity” is the only word I can think of to describe plans to build this incredibly expensive system that is so transparently vulnerable to sabotage.”

In other words, complex infrastructure(s) translate into unpredictable failures. When it comes to alternative energy, most solutions are complex. What’s your opinion of alternative energy sources?

If alternative energies are to replace existing technologies very sizable investments would be required. I often wonder if there is enough capital in the world to replace this existing energy production, that is, to go from coal & natural gas to geothermal, wind or or solar. I don’t know the answer to the investment question.

What I do know is that it’s very difficult to manage wind energy. Currently, coal plants provide base loads and then natural gas (or hydroelectric) turbines are used to meet peak loads. But when you factor wind into your management scheme things become very difficult. You don’t know where the wind is blowing, how much, when, or in what direction it’s blowing. Then you have to factor this into your management. With 5% of your electricity coming from wind this “might” be manageable but to increase it to 50% or 60% it’s very difficult. Most people don’t pay attention to the difficulties of managing electrical demand.

Is the culprit of global warming population growth? Are you suggesting that unless we have major breakthroughs in technology population growth will undermine most current energy initiatives?

Al Gore understands that population growth is the problem. But he doesn’t recommend doing anything to reduce overpopulation which is the cause of the problems.. It is politically incorrect to talk about population growth. The last US president that worried about population was Richard Nixon. He charted a major study called “The Rockefeller Commission Report.” This study was put together by some very talented people. Their conclusion was simple; they couldn’t see any benefit to further population growth in the US. Unfortunately, the study was put on the shelf and forgotten.

This reminds me of the Red Queen…the more she runs the more the walls/scenery catch up. What can we do?

This is something Malthus understood years ago. We still have economists and politicians that claim that Malthus was wrong. This is nonsense. I’ve read Malthus three times and he presents population problems very clearly. The message of Malthus, translated to today’s problems would be something like this: “Population growth has the potential to outstrip the growth in production of any of the resources that are necessary to sustain our population. This is as true today as it was a hundred years ago when he wrote his essay.

I’d like to ask you a question from the title of your own piece, “Why have scientists succumbed to political correctness?”

I don’t know. I think there is a widespread feeling amongst scientists and certainly among the population that science and technology will save us, so why worry about it? Here’s a story… I was once met with a state senator; he said to me “I’m not worried about running out of petroleum, you (pointing to me) scientists will figure out what ever we need.” So I asked him what was the last new source of energy scientists found? He didn’t have an answer,

so I suggested nuclear power – the process was discovered in Germany in 1939. Enrico Fermi had a reactor operating in 1942. By 1956 we had first commercial nuclear power reactor in this country. Since then, we have spent billions of public and private dollars and we only receive 20% of our electricity from nuclear power. Innovation on the large scale required by our overpopulated society will take time and costs billions of dollars..

Even if science/technology develops the appropriate energy solutions. These solutions would have to be developed and implemented at the same rate as the population growth?

What you must realize is that technological improvements by design allow for and encourage more growth. This is like prescribing aspirin for cancer. As for the timing you’re absolutely right: while technology develops populations keep compounding. And because the scale is so large it’s impossible to implement changes quick enough. In other words, it’s very difficult to get 30% of the population using hybrid electric cars in anything short of 20 years.

Let’s talk about employment. Does growth solve unemployment problems?

If creating jobs reduced unemployment, Colorado would have negative unemployment (or whatever that means). For decades we have been creating jobs and we still have unemployment. No matter how many jobs you create you can’t get off unemployment. This is a consequence of people moving around – a constitutionally protected right.

Newly created jobs in a community temporarily lowers the unemployment rate (say from 5% to 4%), but then people move into the community to restore the unemployment rate to its earlier higher value (of 5%). Yet this is 5% of the no larger population, so more individuals are out of work than before.

What’s your opinion of national unemployment rates and the recent crisis?

For years, we have promoted an insane policy of exporting jobs and importing people. So now it’s catching up with us. Any country that has to import people to do the work of the country is unsustainable. One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living. All countries cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity. World trade involves the exportation and importation of carrying capacity.

Tell us more about carrying capacity and trade.

Carrying capacity is a measure of how many people can be supported indefinitely. Therefore if any fraction of global warming is due to the actions of humans, this alone proves that human populations are larger than the carrying capacity of the earth. Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

Many economists have raised concerns over countries particularly European countries which have experienced zero population growth rates (or negative population rates). They claim that these rates will burden “entitlements” such as social security… So clearly the answer is to have higher birth rates…unfortunately this only exacerbates the problems of “sustainability.” What’s your take?

Social Security and such projects are Ponzi schemes. They depend on having more and more people paying every year or they collapse. In effect, Social Security will collapse when there aren’t enough young workers. Getting the population back on the growth curve isn’t a long term answer. That makes all the other problems more difficult. So what you have to do is refinance social security – by raising taxes, reducing benefits, or altering the retirement age.

It’s so sad to see European politicians offering bonuses to couples to have more children because they are afraid of slowing growth rates. What people don’t realize is that declining growth rates are the way to sustainability.

You talk about how zero or negative population growth rates translate into higher standards of living. Can you comment on this?

Thirty years ago when the Chinese put their one child per family policy, there statement of justification was that population growth interferes with economic development. In 30 years, they have proven this is true. We in the U.S. haven’t learned this lesson – if you spend all your resources to take care of new people you have no resources to take care of existing citizens.

That’s interesting; we look at China as an economic miracle. Not many attribute much of this success to controlled population growth. This brings me to my next question: many population problems will not be solved unless Americans are consistently implementing plans for the next 70 years. How do we manage this given our political structures? Does China have an advantage?

That’s a great difficulty. Planning horizons in a democracy are based in term years (2, 4, 6 years). Unfortunately, if you change fertility rates it can take 50-70 years before you see the full effects of a change in fertility. This is called population momentum which is a mismatch to our democracy. Politicians implement changes that benefit us in the short term over the long term.

Have you ever calculated the required population for all countries to enjoy the standard of living experienced by Americans?

I haven’t done that, and there isn’t any specific formula. It depends on the standard of living. The most I can do is quote David Pimentel who is a global agricultural scientist at Cornell University. He says that a sustainable world population living at current US dietary level would consist of two billion people. Furthermore, he suggests that a sustainable US population at current dietary levels would have to be around 130-150 million people, which is the population of the US around World War II.

So, how do we get there? My answer is that the government should bring the issue to the forefront and ask; how large do we (as a nation) want to be and what benefit is there from population growth. Then, we need to set goals and plan accordingly. The key is to make family planning available widely throughout the US and the world – with the goal that every child is a wanted child.

You’ve written that, “The benefits of population growth accrue to a few; while the costs are borne by all of society.” Let’s enumerate some of the costs borne by society and a potential solution.

Individuals who benefit from growth will continue to exert strong pressures supporting and encouraging both population growth and growth in rates of consumption of resources.

The individuals who promote growth are motivated by the recognition that growth is good for them. In order to gain public support for their goals, they must convince people that population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are also good for society. [This is the Charles Wilson argument: if it is good for General Motors, it is good for the United States.] (Yates 1983) As for the costs borne by society – with increased growth you have to provide police, fire, schools, waste removal, clean water, and a variety of other infrastructure projects. These services have to be paid for – but they aren’t paid for by growth. Schools in particular suffer. The school systems get their operating expenses from the taxes and to get capital expenses they have to issue bonds. Thus, all tax payers have to pay higher taxes to accommodate schools for new kids.

The solution is to tax growth, put a tax on real estate transactions (both at local levels and state levels) and use this tax to fund new projects.

Where are most economists confused on this issue of growth rates & consumption?

Economists think of infinite substitutability. They cite the example of shifting out of whale oil to petroleum or from wood to coal. Economists suggest that this can continue indefinitely. Unfortunately there are no close substitutes for petroleum. Furthermore, we already know which substitutes exist and they are very costly to access. The substitutability age is no longer as prominent.

What books would you recommend we read to understand population growth rate issues?

I recommend reading Richard Heinberg’s books, “Peak Oil” and “Peak Everything.” He clearly understands the issues.

Is there any hope given the actions of the current administration?

I certainly welcome the new administration, but the problem is we have the same Congress. This Congress enjoys the status quo, they are protective of their own interests, and tey listen to lobbyists. So as someone once said, “we have the best government money can buy.”

Growth never pays for itself. One of the biggest culprits is the federal government. Almost all states have requirements for a balanced budget. The federal government does not have this requirement. As a consequence the federal government is now paying for state schools, highways, sewage systems, bridges. This has happened because the local economy can’t support local population growth. Therefore, the main responsibility of members of Congress is to bring home federal grants to pay for the results of population growth in their representative district.

Another thing to remember is that inflation is a tax on everyone. So if the federal government issues bonds to pay for the consequences of growth (infrastructure, etc) this is likely to result in inflation. Thus, we will all bear the costs. Having looked at our national debt levels, I’m worried that the inflation could be very severe.

That said, stopping population growth is a necessary condition for sustainability, but it isn’t a sufficient condition.

Let’s assume we could implement population growth constraints. What else must be done?

Assuming you can constrain population growth rates, you have to implement every possible efficiency improvement (meaning energy, design, etc). In addition, you would have to create an environmental agency to stop polluters and require existing sources of pollution to be removed. The US population growth rate is the highest of any industrial nation. The US can’t preach for other countries to limit population growth unless we are willing to set an example and do so first.

Key Points to Remember: By Albert Bartlett:

When applied to material things, the term “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron. (It is possible to have sustainable growth of non-material things such as inflation.) Perhaps this is why inflation rates are sustainable or as some politicians would say hopefully sustainable in moderate amounts. We have seen how major national and international reports misrepresent and downplay (marginalize) the quantitative importance of the arithmetic of population sizes and growth.

1. One has to ask if it is possible to have an increase in economic activity (growth) without having increases in the rates of consumption of non-renewable resources? If so, under what conditions can this happen? Are we moving toward those conditions today?

2. What courses of action that could be followed to meet the needs of the present, but which, in doing so, would not limit the ability of generations, throughout the distant future, to meet their own needs?

3. The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standards of living of the population are inversely related to one another. “This runs counter to most traditional entrepreneurial myths of sustainable growth and rising standards of living”

I come back to an Eric Sevareid quote: “The chief cause of problems is solutions.” That is so important. For example, as long as there’s population growth, urban planning is bound to make everything worse. Here’s why. Essentially all the problems planners must deal with are caused by population growth. And planners are trained to solve problems. For a planner, a problem is anything that inhibits population growth. So when you solve the problem you are encouraging more population growth, and this makes everything worse.

Professor thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. We will continue to track your progress. I wish you the best of health. For More information about Professor Bartlett visit

Miguel Barbosa
Founder of