Archive for June, 2012

Five Ways Email Can Completely Ruin Your Life

2012/06/30 Leave a comment

by Lynn Parramore, AlterNet

AlterNet (June 21 2012)

I’m a writer, and back in the day I used to curse the phone for daring to interrupt my flow with its shrill cry. I cheered when email arrived. It was quicker than lightning. Easy to use. Saved paper and stamps. And it didn’t ring!

But my one-time savior has turned on me. By day’s end my hand is a cramped claw, contorted from hitting the “send” button repeatedly and cranking out one – or fifty – too many emails.

People keep claiming that email will die, that some new technology will replace it. But it lives on. And on. And on.

Sure, email can be a great thing. But it can steal our lives if we let it. From killing our personal time to screwing up our work patterns, here are some of the ways email can really mess us up.

1. Kills Work/Personal Time Balance

StrategyOne, a market research firm, asked Americans how they feel about the balance of work and home life {1}. Turns out that 89 percent of poll respondents were unhappy with the balance, and 54 percent called it a “significant” problem.

Work is dominating our lives even when we’re not actually in the office. Job insecurity and the fear of not being perceived as performing chains us to our inbox, even if we work remotely.

Many of us live in a work culture where we feel we have to respond to emails at all hours. No matter that we might be involved in offline work or activities that should command our full attention. Or – perish the thought – engaging in personal time. Email follows us into the car, to the dinner table and even to the loo. (No kidding. See “Checking Email in the Bathroom? You’re Far From Alone” {2}.)

I’ve been on dates where no matter how special the occasion, my date has pulled out his iPhone and checked his email. I have a “three strikes you’re out rule” on that one. First, I ask you to stop. Second time, I give you a warning. Third time I’m gone. If somebody is driving me, they get one warning. And yet I am perceived as strangely intolerant of what many consider normal behavior.

When we scratch out a few vacation days, instead of the declarative “I am on vacation, and will respond to your email when I return”, we post the timid “I will only check email infrequently”, or the semi-plausible “I will have limited access to email”.

Even if you’re in the hinterland, there may be plenty of “access” to email. Does that mean you should use it when you are supposed to be recharging? It does not. Part of the problem is that we fear the return to work and the pile of unanswered email will be so gruesome that we cave in and check once – twice – and pretty soon we’re checking email during the sunset dinner cruise. The vicious cycle consumes us. We can’t switch off, and it’s turning us into stress freaks.

2. Screws Up Productivity

In her article “Busyness versus Burst: Why Corporate Web Workers Look Unproductive” {3}, Anna Zelenka described two different styles of work. One privileges things like face time, strategic long-term planning, return on investment, and hierarchical control. That’s the “busyness” style. The other, the “burst” style, favors innovation, flat knowledge networks and discontinuous productivity.

We need both styles: the busyness types keep the trains running on time; the burst types provide the creative spark. Guess which type lives inside their email? The busyness types. That’s where they store documents and conduct most of their work. And they tend to demand an immediate response to email. The burst types, on the other hand, tend to use other forms of communication, such as wikis, IM, chat rooms, SMS, and RSS. They work intensely for a period, then need downtime to recover and refresh – time in which they are not checking email. That doesn’t sit well with the busyness types, writes Zelenka:




Bursters … look irresponsible to the busy who jump on each email as soon as it arrives. Bursters know you should try instant messaging if you need a quick answer, go with a blog post if you’re announcing something, and use a wiki for archiving information useful to the entire team. Bursters know that you can use RSS readers with RSS alerts to track all sorts of useful events from system management to code check-ins to development schedule updates to mailing list messages – your email doesn’t have to serve that role. Bursters know that the less they respond by email, the more their colleagues will seek them out using other channels.




But the dominant American managerial style is the busyness model, and it can hamper the productivity of bursters.

The problem has become so acute that some companies are hiring consultants to help them make email more efficient and effective and even declaring email-free days. Some have found that these email holidays actually increase productivity and encourage better forms of communication among workers and clients. A California software company launched “email-free Fridays” and found that employees spent more time talking on the phone to clients {4}. Encouraged by the friendlier attention, clients were more likely to visit the office and get to know the sales reps, who now actually had time to visit – because they weren’t constantly checking email.

3. Collaboration Nightmare

Email can be just the ticket for one-to-one communication, and even one-to-many communication. But if you’ve ever been involved in a project in which multiple contributors are firing back and forth, you know what happens. Conversation flow becomes unclear. The wrong people get left out or included. People get frazzled. They lose energy. They may even pack their toys and go home.

When I launched a Web site, things moved very quickly and my two partners and I found ourselves frantically communicating via email to keep up. One day I noticed that a new email came in just about every minute. If I answered every one of them, I would do little else all day. Stuff got lost. Tempers flared.

Then we discovered the wiki {5}. A wiki is a Web site where pages can be edited by multiple people using a web browser. It’s a shared site that even someone with laughable technical skills such as myself can make and update. If you can learn Facebook, you can make a wiki. It gives everybody a place to go to check status updates and view information – like a collective bulletin board and file cabinet.

Once we got ourselves wiki-fied, my partners and I got more done, and we got it done without losing our minds. It was far from perfect, but it beat the hell out of email. Information on the wiki could be easily updated, and static information was easily viewable without digging frantically through old emails. The biggest hurdle to the wiki is the resistance to try new technology – and this can be powerful. A friend who runs a successful online business once joked to me, “I decide who gets to keep their job based on whether or not they will use a wiki”. He was only half-joking.

4. Fosters Ill Will

Let’s face it. Email is an unmannerly beast. We’ve all had the co-worker who sounds inordinately terse or demanding in email, and we’ve probably all done it ourselves.

I once worked with an editor – thankfully not for long – whose emails were acidic enough to peel the lashes off your eyelids. You absorbed the contents in stunned silence, knowing the written declarations of your stupidity or incompetence were recorded in cyberspace. In person, this woman came across as pleasant. But in email, she was a holy terror. Why? Something about the impersonal nature of email brought out her inner dragon. The faceless, voiceless communication makes us forget that there is an actual human being on the other end.

I wonder if email is a contributor to the growing trend of incivility in our culture. Just as the rapid trading made possible with desktop computers brought a tsunami of short-term thinking and disrespect for human values into the financial industry, email may be eroding our sensitivity to the give and take of human interaction. Many emails don’t even contain the courtesy of a greeting, a simple hello. They burst on us unawares, barking out demands or questions without so much as a please or thank you.

Often simply picking up the phone or walking into the next office can save us a world of email confusion and aggression. And yet we shy away from the more human forms of communication, hiding behind our email and throwing bombs from the safety of our cubicle. Until we’ve ruined a relationship or poisoned our job.

5. The Email Devil

If you spend too much of your time emailing, eventually you will encounter a malevolent being known as the “Email Devil”. This invisible creature lurks inside your inbox causing you to Cc the wrong party, forward an embarrassing personal email to your boss and reply to your entire address list when you meant to answer one person. The Email Devil makes requests sounds like rude demands and causes jokes to come off as offensive. These screw-ups can be embarrassing, and they can also get you into legal trouble. Lawsuits have resulted from ill-considered jokes and offensive comments written in emails.

Email can seem like such a private and cozy form of communication – but it isn’t. Have you ever forwarded a ridiculous or untoward email meant for your private viewing? Then you can bet someone has done it to you. Even when you’re emailing the correct party, an unintended audience may be viewing your email. Basically, your employer can legally monitor your email as long as somewhere a written policy exists. And emails you send and receive while at work – even those you delete – are often stored on a company server for as long as thirty days.

You really should have a separate email account for personal stuff, and remember that work emails should be written as if they will be broadcast to the universe. Any time you need to discuss something confidential, choose the in-person or phone meeting over email.

So what do we do?

Breaking the email chains that bind us is a daunting challenge. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know we have to talk more openly about the problem and not let ourselves fall into a that’s-just-the-way-it-is trap. So let’s experiment. Let’s not start our day automatically with email. Let’s not be afraid to tell the sender of an email, “I’ll respond to this tomorrow” if it comes after business hours. Let’s unsubscribe from newsletters we don’t read, and let’s not give our email address to the store clerk when we make a purchase. Let’s avoid sending abrupt messages without greetings or courtesies – even to co-workers we deal with frequently. When we go on vacation, let’s tell people firmly that we will not be dealing with email. And let’s mean it.








Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture (2008). Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

(c) 2012 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Twilight of Investment

2012/06/29 Leave a comment

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (June 20 2012)

It’s been a few weeks since the conversation on this blog veered away from the decline and fall of American empire to comment on points raised by the recent Age of Limits conference {1}. Glancing back over the detour, I feel it was worth making, but it’s time to circle back to that earlier theme and take it one step further – that is, to shift from how we got here and where we are to where we are headed and why.

That’s a timely topic just at the moment, because events on the other side of the Atlantic have placed some of the crucial factors in high relief. A diversity of forces have come together to turn Europe into the rolling economic debacle it is today, and not all of them are shared by industrial civilization as a whole. Still, a close look at the European crisis will make it possible to make sense of the broader predicament of the industrial world, on the one hand, and the way that predicament will likely play out in the collapse of what remains of the American economy on the other.

Let’s begin with an overview. During the global real estate bubble of the last decade, European banks invested heavily and recklessly in a great many dubious projects, and were hit hard when the bubble burst and those projects moved abruptly toward their real value, which in most cases was somewhere down close to zero. Only one European nation, Iceland, did the intelligent thing, allowed its insolvent banks to fail, paid out to those depositors who were covered by deposit insurance, and drew a line under the problem. Everywhere else, governments caved in to pressure from the rentier class – the people whose income depends on investments rather than salaries, wages, or government handouts – and from foreign governments, and assumed responsibility for all the debts of their failed banks without exception.

Countries that did so, however, found that the interest rates they had to pay to borrow in credit markets quickly soared to ruinous levels, as investors sensibly backed away from countries that were too deeply in debt. Ireland and Greece fell into this trap, and turned to the IMF and the financial agencies of the European Union for help, only to discover the hard way that the “help” consisted of loans at market rates – that is, adding more debt on top of an already crushing debt burden – with conditions attached: specifically, the conditions that were inflicted on a series of Third World countries in the wake of the 1998 financial crash, with catastrophic results.

It used to be called the Washington Consensus, though nobody’s using that term now for the “austerity measures” currently being imposed on the southern half of Europe. Basically, it amounts to the theory that the best therapy for a nation over its head in debt consists of massive cuts to government spending and the enthusiastic privatization, at fire-sale prices, of government assets. In theory, again, debtor countries that embrace this set of prescriptions are supposed to return promptly to prosperity. In practice – and it’s been tried on well over two dozen countries over the last three decades or so, so there’s an ample body of experience – debtor countries that embrace this set of prescriptions are stripped to the bare walls by their creditors and remain in an economic coma until populist politicians seize power, tell the IMF where it can put its economic ideology, and default on their unpayable debts. That’s what Iceland did, as Russia, Argentina, and any number of other countries did earlier, and it’s the only way for an overindebted country to return to prosperity.

That reality, though, is not exactly welcome news to those nations profiting off the modern form of wealth pump, in which unpayable loans usually play a large role. Whenever you see the Washington Consensus being imposed on a country, look for the nations that are advocating it most loudly and it’s a safe bet that they’ll be the countries most actively engaged in stripping assets from the debtor nation. In today’s European context, that would be Germany. It’s one of the mordant ironies of contemporary history that Europe fought two of the world’s most savage wars in the firt half of the twentieth century to deny Germany a European empire, then spent the second half of the same century allowing Germany to attain peacefully nearly every one of its war aims short of overseas colonies and a victory parade down the Champs Élysées.

Since the foundation of the Eurozone, in particular, European economic policy has been managed for German benefit even – as happens tolerably often – at the expense of other European nations. The single currency itself is an immense boon to the German economy, which spent decades struggling with exchange rates that made German exports more expensive, and foreign imports more affordable, to Germany’s detriment. The peseta, the lira, the franc and other European currencies can no longer respond to trade imbalances by losing value relative to the deutschmark now that it’s all one currency. The resulting system – combined with the free trade regulations demanded by economic orthodoxy and enforced by bureaucrats in Brussels – has functioned as a highly efficient wealth pump, and has allowed Germany and a few of its northern European neighbors to prosper while southern Europe stumbles deeper into economic collapse.

In one sense, then, it’s no wonder that German governmental officials are insisting at the top of their lungs that other European countries have to bail out failing banks and then use tax revenues to pay off the resulting debt, even if that requires those countries to follow what amounts to a recipe for national economic suicide. The end of the wealth pump might not mean the endgame for Germany’s current prosperity, but it would certainly make matters much more difficult for the German economy, and thus for the future prospects not only of Angela Merkel but of a great many other German politicians. Now even the most blinkered politician ought to recognize that trying to squeeze the last drop of wealth out of southern Europe is simply going to speed up the arrival of the populist politicians mentioned a few paragraphs back, but I suppose it’s possible that this generation of German politicians are too clueless or too harried to think of that.

Still, there may be more going on, because all these disputes are taking place in a wider context.

The speculative bubble that popped so dramatically in 2008 was by most measures the biggest in human history, considerably bigger than the one that blew the global economy to smithereens in 1929. Even so, the events of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it remain the gold standard of economic crisis, and the managers of the world’s major central banks in 2008 were not unaware of the factors that turned the 1929 crash into what remains, even by today’s standards, the worst economic trauma of modern times. Most of those factors amount to catastrophic mistakes on the part of central bankers, so it’s just as well that today’s central bankers are paying attention.

The key to understanding the Great Depression lies in understanding what exactly it was that went haywire in 1929. In the United States, for example, all the factors that made for ample prosperity in the 1920s were still solidly in place in 1930. Nothing had gone wrong with the farms, factories, mines and oil wells that undergirded the American economy, nor was there any shortage of laborers ready to work or consumers eager to consume. What happened was that the money economy – the system of abstract tokens that industrial societies use to allocate goods and services among people – had frozen up. Since most economic activity in an industrial society depends on the flow of money, and there are no systems in place to take over from the money economy if that grinds to a halt, a problem with the distribution and movement of money made it impossible for the real economy of goods and services to function.

That was what the world’s central bankers were trying to prevent in 2008 and the years immediately afterward, and it’s what they’re still trying to prevent today. That’s what the trillions of dollars that were loaned into existence by the Fed, the Bank of England, and other central banks, and used to prop up failing financial institutions, were meant to do, and it may well be part what’s behind the frantic attempts already mentioned to stave off defaults and prevent banks from paying the normal price for the resoundingly stupid investments of the former boom – though of course the unwillingness of bankers to pay that price with their own careers, and the convenience of large banks as instruments of wealth pumping, also have large roles there.

In 1929 and 1930, panic selling in the US stock market erased millions of dollars in notional wealth – yes, that was a lot of money then – and made raising capital next to impossible for businesses and individuals alike. In 1931, the crisis spread into the banking industry, kicking off a chain reaction of bank failures that pushed the global money system into cardiac arrest and forced the economies of the industrial world to their knees. The world’s central bankers set out to prevent a repeat of that experience. It’s considered impolite in many circles to mention this, but by and large they succeeded; the global economy is still in a world of hurt, no question, but the complete paralysis of the monetary system that made the Great Depression what it was has so far been avoided.

There’s a downside to that, however, which is that keeping the monetary system from freezing up has done nothing to deal with the underlying problem driving the current crisis, the buildup of an immense dead weight of loans and other financial instruments that are supposed to be worth something, and aren’t. Balance sheets throughout the global economy are loaded to the bursting point with securitized loans that will never be paid back, asset-backed securities backed by worthless assets, derivatives of derivatives of derivatives wished into being by what amounts to make-believe, and equally valuable financial exotica acquired during the late bubble by people who were too giddy with paper profits to notice their actual value, which in most cases is essentially zero.

What makes this burden so lethal is that financial institutions of all kinds are allowed to treat this worthless paper as though it still has some approximation of its former theoretical value, even though everyone in the financial industry knows how much it’s really worth. Forcing firms to value it at market rates would cause a catastrophic string of bankruptcies; even forcing firms to admit to how much of it they have, and of what kinds, could easily trigger bank runs and financial panic; while it remains hidden, though, nobody knows when enough of it will blow up and cause another financial firm to implode – and so the trust that’s essential to the functioning of a money economy goes away in a hurry. Nobody wants to loan money to a firm whose other assets might suddenly turn into twinkle dust; for that matter, nobody wants to let their own cash reserves decline, in case their other assets turn into the same illiquid substance; and so the flow of money through the economy slows to a creep, and fails to do the job it’s supposed to do of facilitating the production and exchange of goods and services.

That’s the risk you take when you try to stop a financial panic without tackling the underlying burden of worthless assets generated by the preceding bubble. Much more often than not, in the past, it’s been a risk worth running; if you can only hold on until the impact of the panic fades, economic growth in some nonfinancial sector of the economy picks up, the financial industry can replace its bogus assets with something different and presumably better, and away you go. That’s what happened in the wake of the tech-stock panic of 2000 and 2001: the Fed dropped interest rates, made plenty of money available to financial firms in trouble, and did everything else it could think of to postpone bankruptcies until the housing bubble started boosting the economy again. It doesn’t always work – Japan has been stuck in permanent recession in the wake of its gargantuan 1990 stock market crash, precisely because it didn’t work – but in American economic history, at least, it’s tended to work more often than not.

Still, there was a major warning sign in the wake of the tech-stock fiasco that should have been heeded, and was not: what boosted the economy anew wasn’t an economic expansion in some nonfinancial sector, but a second and even larger speculative bubble in the financial sphere. I discussed in posts late last year {2, 3} ecological economist Herman Daly’s comments about shortages of “bankable projects” – that is, projects that are likely to bring in enough of a return on investment to pay back loans with interest and still make a profit for somebody. In an expanding economy, bankable projects are easy to find, since it’s precisely the expansion of an expanding economy that makes a positive return on investment the normal way of things. If you flood your economy with cheap credit to counter the aftermath of a speculative bubble, and the only thing that comes out of it is an even bigger speculative bubble, something significant has happened to the mechanisms of economic growth.

More specifically, something other than a paralysis of the money system has happened to the mechanisms of economic growth. That’s the unlearned lesson of the last decade. In the wake of the 2001 tech stock crash, and then again in the aftermath of 2008’s even larger financial panic, the Fed flooded the American economy with quantities of cheap credit so immense that any viable project for producing goods and services ought to have been able to find ample capital to get off the ground. Instead of an entrepreneurial boom, though, both periods saw money pile up in the financial industry, because there was a spectacular shortage of viable projects outside it. Outside of manipulating money and gaming the system, there simply isn’t much that makes a profit any more.

Next week we’ll discuss why that is happening. In the meantime, though, it’s important to note what the twilight of investment means for the kick-the-can strategy that’s guiding the Fed and other central banks in their efforts to fix the world economy. That strategy depends on the belief that sooner or later, even the most battered economy will finally begin to improve, and the upswing will make it possible to replace the temporary patches on the economy with something more solid. It’s been a viable strategy fairly often in the past, but it worked poorly in 2001 and it doesn’t appear to be working at all at this point. Thus it’s probable that the Fed is treading water, waiting for a rescue that isn’t on its way; what will happen as that latter point becomes clear is something we’ll be exploring at length later on in this series of posts.


End of the World of the Week #27

Those of my readers who, as I was, were young and impressionable in the early 1970s may well remember The Jupiter Effect, a once-famous book by John Gribben and Stephem Plagemann which saw print in 1974. Gribben and Plagemann were astrophysicists, which gave their claims a good deal of apparent credibility. They had noticed that on March 10 1982, most of the planets in the solar system would be aligned with one another, and Jupiter – the most massive of the planets – would be part of the alignment as it passed through its closest approach to Earth. This additional gravitational tug, they proposed, would set off sunspots, solar flares, and earthquakes, making life interesting for our species and just possibly ending life on Earth.

The Jupiter Effect quickly developed a following, and joined a flurry of other apparently scientific predictions of imminent doom in circulation at that time. I’m not sure how many people were still waiting for catastrophe when 1982 came around, but any who were must have been sorely disappointed; the sunspot count for March 10 was nothing out of the ordinary, the solar flares and earthquakes failed to put in an appearance, and the only known result of the Jupiter Effect was that high tides that day were all of 0.04 millimeters higher than they would otherwise have been.

— For more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not {4}


John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America {5} and the author of more than twenty books on a wide range of subjects, including The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (2008), The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak World (2009), and The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered (2011). He lives in Cumberland, Maryland, an old red brick mill town in the north central Appalachians, with his wife Sara.

If you enjoy reading this blog, you might want to check out Star’s Reach {6}, his blog/novel of the deindustrial future. Set four centuries after the decline and fall of our civilization, it uses the tools of narrative fiction to explore the future our choices today are shaping for our descendants tomorrow.








Categories: Uncategorized

Slavery 2.0

2012/06/28 Leave a comment

by Albert Bates

The Great Change (June 08 2012)



Our new consumerist aspirations drawn from Disneyesque utopian imagineering compel us to stop and ask, what comes next? How will we support the gains that have made? Can minorities be accorded equality of opportunity in a shrinking job market with a burgeoning de-skilled labor pool?”

For a number of years now we have been parsing tea leaves to mull what Hubbert linearization may do for human rights. To briefly recap, earlier civilizations almost uniformly were far more cruel, brutal and oppressive to the majority of their subjects than is our present globalized industrial society. Consumer societies have apparently learned that they can only abuse their buyers/producers to a point or markets shrivel. Hence, they have been steadily conferring more rights, expectations and aspirations for the better part of 150 years, and now some of that is coming around to bite our collective hindquarters.

Attacks on public employee’s unions (and the recent recall election in Wisconsin), the student fee-hike protests around the globe, and the Greek rebellion against fiscal austerity measures imposed by the European Union are all manifestations, in part, of unbound entitlements meeting up with the curve of binding entropy.

Going back to the last turning, the War of Northern Aggression was as much a product of Colonel Drake’s discovery of “coal oil” on Seneca land as any of the unleashed tensions set ablaze by John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid. Fed by a steadily expanding diet of coal and oil, Northern industrialists vastly outproduced Southern planters in the key commodities of guns and steel. They wanted and, from a capitalist standpoint, needed, market hegemony, particularly to the Eurozone and the Western Frontier, both opened by steam power. A plantation economy based on the joules per kilogram of imported African slaves was no match. When the two horse armies clashed on the plains of Shenandoah, the trenches of Verdun were birthed. Warfare would never be the same, but, more importantly, neither would our thinking about human rights.

The rising aspirations of energy-rich consumers, including the children of former slaves, brought a near revolution a century later, as well-educated Northern freedom-riders took gasoline-fueled mass transit south into slavery’s last bastions and the Montgomery bus boycott was beaten harmless by car-pools using private automobiles owned by middle-class blacks and liberated housewives, their kitchens automated with General Electric and Westinghouse products. These same people would soon be sending children of their own to rich, formerly while male bastions of academia to be educated in the liberation theology that was breaking down walls from Berlin to Bothaville.

Alas, all of this was erected on an edifice of boundless energy density. Rather than trying to construct monumental civilizations on diffuse solar and renewable sources – our energy checking account from the Sun, harvested by plant and animal slaves, including the two-legged variety – we were, for a brief shining moment, able to draw down a one-time, 500-million-year store of fossil sunlight – our energy savings account, harvested by Caterpiller, Halliburton and Exxon-Mobil. As we now pass a halfway point on that savings account, with a world population past north of seven billion, our new consumerist aspirations drawn from Disneyesque utopian imagineering compel us to stop and ask, what comes next? How will we support the gains that have been made?

Can housewives be liberated without all-electric kitchens? In post-nuclear Fukushima Prefecture they have had to hunt up those artisanal tofu-crafters still boiling curds in wood-fired pots to remind them how it was that food staples could be produced affordably without electricity. It can be done, they are told, but only with human labor substituting for those atomic pressure cookers. You can do it now, or you can wait, but panoplies of fresh Fukushimas lurk to ensnare the tardy.

Can minorities be accorded equality of opportunity in a shrinking job market with a burgeoning de-skilled labor pool? Can we, as civilization de-grows, afford to provide subsidies for art history or music theory researchers, or, for that matter, researchers at all? Or was all that an artifact of our vanishing Era of Abundance?

In his World Made By Hand series, James Howard Kunstler paints a picture of neofeudalism in upstate New York, circa mid- to late- 21st century. A few wealthy land-owners or Christian sects control the means of production, which are largely driven once more by plant and animal slaves, including the two-legged variety, whether they are called employees, brethren or citizens. There is a real allure in this vision, borne of the recognition that both capitalism and socialism were industrial era conceits, and both depended on a steadily expanding wealth of energy-dense fuels to confer their promised benefits. What they replaced, we need to remember, was theocracy and authoritarianism, or what we might call Slavery 1.0.

Somewhere between Slavery 1.0 and its return as Slavery 2.0, we’ve experienced a number of technical adjustments and bug-fixes which could be called Slavery 1.1, 1.2, et cetera. These would include the American, French and Russian revolutions against feudal aristocracies, the Bolivarian liberation struggles of principally the South, and the vast consumer societies that today comprise our global economy, from Cairo to Chicago. Each of the bug fixes addressed some social maladjustment that threatened to conflagrate into outright civil rebellion, but none threatened the underlying premises of the slavery mindset: income inequality; concentration of power into the hands of a select few; and indentured servitude for the masses, whether through export-driven economic systems, withholding of health, housing, food or water, or imposition of academic fees on the fleeting promise of being able to lift oneself out of slavery if one is willing to accept usurious loan terms for the rest of one’s life.

Take away the hidden energy subsidy and the façade tumbles. Aspirations for liberation then become an entirely different question, because to whom should complaints be addressed? Consumers are themselves the oppressors. Democracies are the reflection of their aspirations; oligarchies and transnational corporate vultures the implied end-result of a pyramidal structure; and theocracy and authoritarianism the most likely last refuge when all hope for anything better has been abandoned. Slavery 2.0 is coming soon to a mall near you and it may well be disguised as spiritual rebirth or torus energy from the Thrive-world. In the end, it will mean going back to a world we once knew but have almost forgotten, a little less kind and a lot more physical.

It will also be much hotter, lest we forget that our dalliance with that ancient, buried savings account had consequences.

Categories: Uncategorized

Corporate Profits Just Hit An All-Time High

2012/06/27 Leave a comment

Wages Just Hit An All-Time Low

by Henry Blodget

Business Insider (June 22 2012)

In case you need more confirmation that the US economy is out of balance, here are three charts for you.

1. Corporate profit margins just hit an all-time high. Companies are making more per dollar of sales than they ever have before. (And some people are still saying that companies are suffering from “too much regulation” and “too many taxes”. Maybe little companies are, but big ones certainly aren’t.)

Corporate profits as Percent of GDP (Business Insider, Saint Louis Federal Reserve)

2. Fewer Americans are working than at any time in the past three decades. One reason corporations are so profitable is that they don’t employ as many Americans as they used to.

Employment Population Ratio (Business Insider, Saint Louis Federal Reserve)

3. Wages as a percent of the economy are at an all-time low. This is both cause and effect. One reason companies are so profitable is that they’re paying employees less than they ever have as a share of GDP. And that, in turn, is one reason the economy is so weak: Those “wages” are other companies’ revenue.

Wages to GDP (Business Insider, Saint Louis Federal Reserve)

In short, our current system and philosophy is creating a country of a few million overlords and 300+ million serfs.

That’s not what has made America a great country. It’s also not what most people think America is supposed to be about.

So we might want to rethink that.

Meanwhile, if you want to know more about what’s wrong with the economy, flip through these charts:

Categories: Uncategorized

Is Barack Obama Morphing Into Dick Cheney?

2012/06/27 Leave a comment

Four Ways the President Is Pursuing Cheney’s Geopolitics of Global Energy

by Michael T Klare {1}

TomDispatch (June 21 2012)

As details of his administration’s global war against terrorists, insurgents, and hostile warlords have become more widely known – a war that involves a melange of drone attacks, covert operations {2}, and presidentially selected assassinations {3} – President Obama has been compared {4} to President George W Bush in his appetite for military action. “As shown through his stepped-up drone campaign”, Aaron David Miller, an advisor {5} to six secretaries of state, wrote {6} at Foreign Policy, “Barack Obama has become George W Bush on steroids”.

When it comes to international energy politics, however, it is not Bush but his vice president, Dick Cheney, who has been providing the role model for the president. As recent events have demonstrated, Obama’s energy policies globally bear an eerie likeness to Cheney’s, especially in the way he has engaged in the geopolitics of oil as part of an American global struggle for future dominance among the major powers.

More than any of the other top officials of the Bush administration – many with oil-company backgrounds – Cheney focused on the role of energy in global power politics. From 1995 to 2000, he served as chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Halliburton {7}, a major supplier of services to the oil industry. Soon after taking office as vice president he was asked by Bush to devise a new national energy strategy that has largely governed US policy ever since.

Early on, Cheney concluded that the global supply of energy was not growing fast enough to satisfy rising world demand, and that securing control over the world’s remaining oil and natural gas supplies would therefore be an essential task for any state seeking to acquire or retain a paramount position globally. He similarly grasped that a nation’s rise to prominence could be thwarted by being denied access to essential energy supplies. As coal was to the architects of the British empire, oil was for Cheney – a critical resource over which it would sometimes be necessary to go to war.

More than any of his peers, Cheney articulated such views on the importance of energy to national wealth and power. “Oil is unique in that it is so strategic in nature”, he told {8} an audience at an industry conference in London in 1999.

We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear here. Energy is truly fundamental to the world’s economy. The Gulf War was a reflection of that reality.

Cheney’s reference to the 1990 to 1991 Gulf War is particularly revealing. During that conflict, he was the secretary of defense and so supervised the American war effort. But while his boss, President George H W Bush, played down the role of oil in the fight against Iraq, Cheney made no secret of his belief that energy geopolitics lay at the heart of the matter. “Once [Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein] acquired Kuwait and deployed an army as large as the one he possesses”, Cheney told the Senate Armed Services Committee when asked to justify the administration’s decision to intervene, “he was clearly in a position to be able to dictate the future of worldwide energy policy, and that gave him a stranglehold on our economy”.

This would be exactly the message he delivered in 2002, as the second President Bush girded himself for the invasion of Iraq. Were Saddam Hussein successful in acquiring weapons of mass destruction, Cheney told {9} a group of veterans that August 25th, “[he] could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East [and] take control of a great portion of the world’s energy supplies”.

For Cheney, the geopolitics of oil lay at the core of international relations, largely determining the rise and fall of nations. From this, it followed that any steps, including war and environmental devastation, were justified so long as they enhanced America’s power at the expense of its rivals.

Cheney’s World

Through his speeches, Congressional testimony, and actions in office, it is possible to reconstruct the geopolitical blueprint that Cheney followed in his career as a top White House strategist – a blueprint that President Obama, eerily enough, now appears to be implementing, despite the many risks involved.

That blueprint consists of four key features:

1. Promote domestic oil and gas production at any cost to reduce America’s dependence on unfriendly foreign suppliers, thereby increasing Washington’s freedom of action.

2. Keep control over the oil flow from the Persian Gulf (even if the US gets an ever-diminishing share of its own oil supplies from the region) in order to retain an “economic stranglehold” over other major oil importers.

3. Dominate the sea lanes of Asia, so as to control the flow of oil and other raw materials to America’s potential economic rivals, China and Japan.

4. Promote energy “diversification” in Europe, especially through increased reliance on oil and natural gas supplies from the former Soviet republics of the Caspian Sea basin, in order to reduce Europe’s heavy dependence on Russian oil and gas, along with the political influence this brings Moscow.

The first objective, increased reliance on domestic oil and gas, was highlighted in National Energy Policy {10}, the energy strategy Cheney devised for the president in May 2001 in close consultation with representatives of the oil giants. Although mostly known for its advocacy of increased drilling on federal lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Cheney Report (as it came to be known) largely focused on the threat of growing US dependence on foreign oil suppliers and the need to achieve greater “energy security” through a damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead program of accelerated exploitation of domestic energy supplies.

“A primary goal of the National Energy Policy is to add supply from diverse sources”, the report declared. “This means domestic oil, gas, and coal. It also means hydropower and nuclear power.” The plan also called for a concerted drive to increase US reliance on friendly sources of energy in the Western hemisphere, especially Brazil, Canada, and Mexico.

The second objective, control over the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf, was, for Cheney, the principal reason for both the First Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Although before that invasion, the president and other top officials focused on Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, his human rights record, and the need to bring democracy to Iraq, Cheney never wavered in his belief that the basic goal was to ensure that Washington would control the Middle Eastern oil jugular.

After Saddam’s ouster and the occupation of Iraq began, Cheney was especially outspoken in his insistence that neighboring Iran be prevented, by force of arms if need be, from challenging American preeminence in the Gulf. “We’ll keep the sea lanes open”, he declared {11} from the deck of an aircraft carrier during maneuvers off the coast of Iran in May 2007. “We’ll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region”.

Cheney also focused in a major way on ensuring control over the sea lanes from the Strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf (out of which 35% of the world’s tradable oil flows each day) across the Indian Ocean, through the Straits of Malacca, and into the South and East China Seas. To this day, these maritime corridors remain essential for the economic survival of China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, bringing oil and other raw materials to their industries and carrying manufactured goods to their markets abroad. By maintaining US control over these vital conduits, Cheney sought to guarantee the loyalty of America’s key Asian allies and constrain the rise of China. In pursuit of these classic geopolitical objectives, he pushed for an enhanced US naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region and the establishment of a network of military alliances {12} linking Japan, Australia, and India, all aimed at containing China.

Finally, Cheney sought to rein in America’s other major great-power rival, Russia. While his boss, George W Bush, spoke of the potential for cooperation with Moscow, Cheney, still an energy cold warrior, viewed Russia as a geopolitical competitor and sought every opportunity to diminish its power and influence. He particularly feared that Europe’s growing dependence on Russian natural gas could undermine its resolve to resist aggressive Russian moves in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

To counter this trend, Cheney tried to persuade the Europeans to get more of their energy from the Caspian Sea basin by building {13} new pipelines to that region via Georgia and Turkey. The idea was to bypass Russia by persuading {14} Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to export their gas through these conduits, not those owned by Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled monopoly. When Georgia came under attack from Russian forces in August 2008, after Georgian troops shelled the pro-Moscow enclave of South Ossetia, Cheney was the first senior US official to visit {15} Tbilisi, bringing a promise of $1 billion in reconstruction assistance, as well as an offer of fast-track entry into NATO. France and Germany blocked {16} the move, fearing Moscow might respond with actions that could destabilize Europe.

Obama as Cheney

This four-part geopolitical blueprint, relentlessly pursued by Cheney while vice president, is now being implemented in every respect by President Obama.

When it comes to the pursuit of enhanced energy independence, Obama has embraced the ultra-nationalistic orientation of the 2001 Cheney report, with its call for increased reliance on domestic and Western Hemisphere oil and natural gas – no matter the dangers of drilling {17} in environmentally fragile offshore areas or the use of hazardous techniques like hydro-fracking {18}. In recent speeches, he has boasted of his administration’s efforts to facilitate increased oil and gas drilling at home and promised to speed drilling in new locations, including offshore Alaska {19} and the Gulf of Mexico.

“Over the last three years”, he boasted {20} in his January State of the Union address, “we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75% of our potential offshore oil and gas resources. Right now – right now – American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years … Not only that – last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past sixteen years”. He spoke with particular enthusiasm about the extraction of natural gas via fracking from shale deposits: “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years. And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”

Obama has also voiced his desire to increase US reliance on Western Hemisphere energy, thereby diminishing its dependence on unreliable and unfriendly suppliers in the Middle East and Africa. In March 2011, with the Arab Spring gaining momentum, he traveled to Brazil for five days of trade talks, a geopolitical energy pivot noted {21} at the time. In the eyes of many observers, Obama’s focus on Brazil was inextricably linked to that country’s emergence as a major oil producer, thanks to new discoveries in the “pre-salt” fields {22} off its coast in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, discoveries that could help the US wean itself off Middle Eastern oil but could also turn out to be pollution nightmares. Although environmentalists have warned {23} of the risks of drilling in the pre-salt fields, where a Deepwater Horizon-like blowout is an ever-present danger, Obama has made no secret of his geopolitical priorities. “By some estimates, the oil you recently discovered off the shores of Brazil could amount to twice the reserves we have in the United States”, he told {24} Brazilian business leaders in that country’s capital. “When you’re ready to start selling, we want to be one of your best customers. At a time when we’ve been reminded how easily instability in other parts of the world can affect the price of oil, the United States could not be happier with the potential for a new, stable source of energy.”

At the same time, Obama has made it clear that the US will retain its role as the ultimate guardian of the Persian Gulf sea lanes. Even while trumpeting the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq, he has insisted {25} that the United States will bolster its air, naval, and special operations forces in the Gulf region, so as to remain the preeminent military power there. “Back to the future”, is how Major General Karl R Horst, chief of staff of the US Central Command, described {26} the new posture, referring to a time before the Iraq War when the US exercised dominance in the region mainly through {27} its air and naval superiority.

While less conspicuous than “boots on the ground”, the expanded air and naval presence will be kept strong enough to overpower any conceivable adversary. “We will have a robust continuing presence throughout the region”, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared {28} last October. Such a build-up has in fact been accentuated {29}, in preparation either for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, should Obama conclude that negotiations to curb Iranian enrichment activities have reached a dead end, or to clear the Strait of Hormuz, if the Iranians carry out threats {30} to block oil shipping there in retaliation for the even harsher economic sanctions due to be imposed after July 1st.

Like Cheney, Obama also seeks to ensure US control over the vital sea lanes extending from the Strait of Hormuz {31} to the South China Sea. This is, in fact, the heart of Obama’s much publicized policy “pivot” {32} to Asia and his new military doctrine {33}, first revealed in a speech to the Australian Parliament on November 17th. “As we plan and budget for the future”, he declared {34}, “we will allocate the resources necessary to maintain our strong military presence in this region”. A major priority of this effort, he indicated, would be enhanced “maritime security”, especially in the South China Sea.

Central to the Obama plan – like that advanced by Dick Cheney in 2007 – is the construction of a network {35} of bases and alliances encircling China, the globe’s rising power, in an arc stretching from Japan and South Korea in the north to Australia, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the southeast and thence to India in the southwest. When describing this effort in Canberra, Obama revealed {36} that he had just concluded an agreement with the Australian government to establish a new US military basing facility at Darwin on the country’s northern coast, near the South China Sea {37}. He also spoke {38} of the ultimate goal of US geopolitics: a region-embracing coalition of anti-Chinese states that would include India. “We see America’s enhanced presence across Southeast Asia”, both in growing ties with local powers like Australia and “in our welcome of India as it ‘looks east’ and plays a larger role as an Asian power”.

As anyone who follows Asian affairs is aware, a strategy aimed at encircling China – especially one intended to incorporate India into America’s existing Asian alliance system – is certain {39} to produce alarm and pushback from Beijing. “I don’t think they’re going to be very happy”, said {40} Mark Valencia, a senior researcher at the National Bureau of Asian Research, speaking of China’s reaction. “I’m not optimistic in the long run as to how this is going to wind up”.

Finally, Obama has followed in Cheney’s footsteps in his efforts to reduce Russia’s influence in Europe and Central Asia by promoting the construction of new oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian via Georgia and Turkey to Europe. On June 5th, at the Caspian Oil and Gas Conference in Baku, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan read a message {41} from Obama promising Washington’s support for a proposed Trans-Anatolia gas pipeline, a conduit designed to carry natural gas from Azerbaijan across Georgia and Turkey to Europe – bypassing Russia, naturally. At the same time, Secretary of State Clinton traveled to Georgia, just as Cheney had, to reaffirm {42} US support and offer increased US military aid. As during the Bush-Cheney era, these moves are bound to be seen in Moscow as part of a calculated drive to lessen Russia’s influence in the region – and so are certain to elicit a hostile response.

In virtually every respect, then, when it comes to energy geopolitics the Obama administration continues to carry out the strategic blueprint pioneered by Dick Cheney during the two Bush administrations. What explains this surprising behavior? Assuming that it doesn’t represent a literal effort to replicate Cheney’s thinking – and there’s no evidence of that – it clearly represents the triumph of imperial geopolitics (and hidebound thinking) over ideology, principle, or even simple openness to new ideas.

When you get two figures as different as Obama and Cheney pursuing the same pathways in the world – and the first time around was anything but a success – it’s a sign of just how closed and airless the world of Washington really has become. At a time when most Americans are weary of grand ideological crusades, the pursuit of what looks like simple national self-interest – in the form of assured energy supplies – may appear far more attractive as a rationale for military and political involvement abroad.

In addition, Obama and his advisers are no doubt influenced by talk {43} of a new “golden age” of North American oil and gas, made possible by the exploitation of shale deposits and other unconventional – and often dirty – energy resources. According to projections {44} given by the Department of Energy, US reliance on imported energy is likely to decline in the years ahead (though there is a domestic price {45} to be paid for such “independence”), while China’s will only rise – a seeming geopolitical advantage for the United States that Obama appears to relish.

It is easy enough to grasp the appeal of such energy geopolitics for White House strategists, especially given the woeful state of the US economy and the declining utility of other instruments of state power. And if you are prepared to overlook the growing environmental risks of reliance on offshore oil, shale gas, and other unconventional forms of energy, rising US energy output conveys certain geopolitical advantages. But as history suggests, engaging in aggressive global geopolitical confrontations with other determined, well-armed players usually leads to friction, crisis, war, and disaster.

In this regard, Cheney’s geopolitical maneuvering led us into two costly Middle Eastern wars while heightening tensions with both China and Russia. President Obama claims he seeks to build a more peaceful world, but copying the Cheney energy blueprint is bound to produce the exact opposite.
















































Michael T Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author most recently of The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (Metropolitan Books, 2012).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch, join us on Facebook, and check out the latest TomDispatch book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050 (2012).

Copyright 2012 Michael Klare

(c) 2012 TomDispatch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Planet Wreckers

2012/06/26 Leave a comment

Climate-change deniers are on the ropes – but so is the planet

by Bill McKibben

Le Monde diplomatique (June 13 2012)

It’s been a tough few weeks for the forces of climate-change denial.

First came the giant billboard with Unabomber Ted Kacynzki’s face plastered across it {1}: “I Still Believe in Global Warming. Do You?” Sponsored by the Heartland Institute, the nerve-center of climate-change denial, it was supposed to draw attention to the fact that “the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.” Instead it drew attention to the fact that these guys had over-reached, and with predictable consequences.

A hard-hitting campaign from a new group called Forecast the Facts {2} persuaded many of the corporations backing {3} Heartland to withdraw $825,000 {4} in funding; an entire wing of the Institute, devoted to helping the insurance industry, calved off to form its own nonprofit. Normally friendly politicians like Wisconsin Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner announced that they would boycott the group’s annual conference unless the billboard campaign was ended.

Which it was, before the billboards with Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden could be unveiled, but not before the damage was done: Sensenbrenner spoke at last month’s conclave, but attendance was way down at the annual gathering, and Heartland leaders announced that there were no plans for another of the yearly fests. Heartland’s head, Joe Bast, complained that his side had been subjected to the most “uncivil name-calling and disparagement you can possibly imagine from climate alarmists”, which was both a little rich – after all, he was the guy with the mass-murderer billboards – but also a little pathetic. A whimper had replaced the characteristically confident snarl of the American right {5}.

That pugnaciousness may return: Mr Bast said last week that he was finding new corporate sponsors {6}, that he was building a new small-donor base that was “Greenpeace-proof”, and that in any event the billboard had been a fine idea anyway because it had “generated more than $5 million in earned media so far”. (That’s a bit like saying that for a successful White House bid John Edwards should have had more mistresses and babies because look at all the publicity!) Whatever the final outcome, it’s worth noting that, in a larger sense, Bast is correct: this tiny collection of deniers has actually been incredibly effective over the past years.

The best of them – and that would be Marc Morano, proprietor of the website Climate Depot, and Anthony Watts, of the website Watts Up With That – have fought with remarkable tenacity to stall and delay the inevitable recognition that we’re in serious trouble. They’ve never had much to work with. Only one even remotely serious scientist remains in the denialist camp. That’s MIT’s Richard Lindzen, who has been arguing for years that while global warming is real it won’t be as severe as almost all his colleagues believe. But as a long article in the New York Times {7} detailed last month, the credibility of that sole dissenter is basically shot. Even the peer reviewers he approved for his last paper {8} told the National Academy of Sciences that it didn’t merit publication. (It ended up in a “little-known Korean journal”.)

Deprived of actual publishing scientists to work with, they’ve relied on a small troupe of vaudeville performers, featuring them endlessly on their websites. Lord Christopher Monckton, for instance, an English peer (who has been officially warned by the House of Lords to stop saying he’s a member) began his speech at Heartland’s annual conference by boasting that he had “no scientific qualification” to challenge the science of climate change {9}.

He’s proved the truth of that claim many times, beginning in his pre-climate-change career when he explained {10} to readers of the American Spectator that “there is only one way to stop AIDS. That is to screen the entire population regularly and to quarantine all carriers of the disease for life.” His personal contribution to the genre of climate-change mass-murderer analogies has been to explain that a group of young climate-change activists who tried to take over a stage where he was speaking were “Hitler Youth”.

Or consider Lubos Motl, a Czech theoretical physicist who has never published on climate change but nonetheless keeps up a steady stream of web assaults on scientists he calls “fringe kibitzers who want to become universal dictators” who should “be thinking how to undo your inexcusable behavior so that you will spend as little time in prison as possible”. On the crazed killer front, Motl said that, while he supported many of Norwegian gunman Anders Breivik’s ideas, it was hard to justify gunning down all those children – still, it did demonstrate {11} that “right-wing people … may even be more efficient while killing – and the probable reason is that Breivik may have a higher IQ than your garden variety left-wing or Islamic terrorist”.

If your urge is to laugh at this kind of clown show, the joke’s on you – because it’s worked. I mean, James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has emerged victorious in every Senate fight on climate change, cites Motl regularly; Monckton has testified four times before the US Congress.

Morano, one of the most skilled political operatives of the age – he “broke the story” {12} that became the Swiftboat attack on John Kerry – plays rough: he regularly publishes the email addresses of those he pillories, for instance, so his readers can pile on the abuse. But he plays smart, too. He’s a favorite of Fox News and of Rush Limbaugh, and he and his colleagues have used those platforms to make it anathema for any Republican politician to publicly express a belief in the reality of climate change.

Take Newt Gingrich, for instance. Only four years ago he was willing to sit on a love seat with Nancy Pelosi and film a commercial {13} for a campaign headed by Al Gore. In it he explained that he agreed with the California Congresswoman and then-Speaker of the House that the time had come for action on climate. This fall, hounded by Morano, he was forced to recant again and again. His dalliance with the truth about carbon dioxide hurt him more among the Republican faithful than any other single “failing”. Even Mitt Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts actually took some action on global warming, has now been reduced to claiming {14} that scientists may tell us “in fifty years” if we have anything to fear.

In other words, a small cadre of fervent climate-change deniers took control of the Republican party on the issue. This, in turn, has meant control of Congress, and since the president can’t sign a treaty by himself, it’s effectively meant stifling any significant international progress on global warming. Put another way, the various right wing billionaires {15} and energy companies who have bankrolled this stuff have gotten their money’s worth many times over.

One reason the denialists’ campaign has been so successful, of course, is that they’ve also managed to intimidate the other side. There aren’t many senators who rise with the passion or frequency of James Inhofe but to warn of the dangers of ignoring what’s really happening on our embattled planet.

It’s a striking barometer of intimidation that Barack Obama, who has a clear enough understanding of climate change and its dangers, has barely mentioned the subject for four years. He did show a little leg to his liberal base in Rolling Stone earlier this spring {16} by hinting that climate change could become a campaign issue. Last week, however, he passed on his best chance to make good on that promise when he gave a long speech on energy at an Iowa wind turbine factory without even mentioning global warming {17}. Because the GOP has been so unreasonable, the President clearly feels he can take the environmental vote by staying silent, which means the odds that he’ll do anything dramatic in the next four years grow steadily smaller.

On the brighter side, not everyone has been intimidated. In fact, a spirited counter-movement has arisen in recent years. The very same weekend that Heartland tried to put the Unabomber’s face on global warming, conducted thousands of rallies {18} around the globe to show who climate change really affects {19}. In a year of mobilization, we also managed to block – at least temporarily – the Keystone pipeline {20} that would have brought the dirtiest of dirty energy, tar-sands oil, from the Canadian province of Alberta to the Gulf Coast. In the meantime, our Canadian allies are fighting hard to block a similar pipeline that would bring those tar sands to the Pacific for export.

Similarly, in just the last few weeks, hundreds of thousands have signed on {21} to demand an end to fossil-fuel subsidies {22}. And new polling data {23} already show more Americans worried about our changing climate, because they’ve noticed the freakish weather of the last few years and drawn the obvious conclusion.

But damn, it’s a hard fight, up against a ton of money and a ton of inertia. Eventually, climate denial will “lose”, because physics and chemistry are not intimidated even by Lord Monckton. But timing is everything – if he and his ilk, a crew of certified planet wreckers, delay action past the point where it can do much good, they’ll be able to claim one of the epic victories in political history – one that will last for geological epochs.


























This article was first published in TomDispatch, 3 june 2012

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010). More by Bill McKibben at

Categories: Uncategorized

Our Brave Experiment

2012/06/25 1 comment

by Dmitry Orlov

Club Orlov (June 12 2012)

Note: This is the last in the series of three posts based on the talks I gave at the first annual Age of Limits  conference {1} in Artemas, Pennsylvania.

Exactly six years ago – a year or so before my first book was to be published – my wife and I sold our condo in a Boston suburb, liquidated most of our belongings, moved the rest either into storage or aboard Hogfish – our 32-foot sailboat – and sailed off into the North Atlantic.

This was rather brave of us, since, up to that point, our seafaring experience was limited to a weekend sail from Boston to Salem and back, which is the nautical equivalent of dangling your feet in a swimming pool. I did have some prior sailing experience: I had sailed dinghies around Boston’s Charles River Basin (a smallish expanse of flat water between the Massachusetts Avenue bridge and the Longfellow Bridge). Once that became too boring, I joined Courageous Sailing Center and went on to sail somewhat larger boats, including the sporty J-22, around Boston Harbor.

The typical summer afternoon excursion involved tacking out and around the nearest harbor island on the afternoon sea breeze, anchoring somewhere for a picnic, and sloshing back on the tide and the dying breeze just as the sun was starting to set. While this doesn’t sound particularly courageous, just getting out into the harbor did take courage: Courageous Sailing Center is located in a deep, winded-in pocket between two piers, and the only way to get out of it and out into the harbor it is by short-tacking through an obstacle course of moored boats.

If you haven’t realized this yet, the approach I am taking with this article is that too much information is generally a good thing; however, I am not setting out to write an encyclopedia of sailing, so I will throw a lot of terms around without pausing to define them. If you don’t understand something, then let Wikipedia be your friend.

My decision to buy the sailboat was a long time in the making. I had started researching sail-based transport some time before then, having come to the realization that, once fossil fuels are gone, sailing will once again become the only way to navigate the planet. I had also realized that the world has changed since the world’s last sail-based merchant marine (Finnish) ceased to exist (right around World War Two). For one thing, there just isn’t the supply of dense-grained old-growth timber from which to construct wooden ships using classic time-tested methods. The available timber is from new, smaller, fast-growth trees, which have loose grain structure with widely spaced rings, and even it is in short supply, very expensive, and weak. For another thing, over the course of this century sea-level rise associated with global warming will put most coastal port facilities underwater and out of commission.

If you don’t believe this, that’s fine by me, because I believe my own eyes, not you. Just last week a freakishly high tide put the floating docks at several marinas in the Boston area within a foot or so of floating off the tops of the pilings. If we are planning for one or two decades from now, let’s do the reasonable thing and plan for docks and waterfronts that are awash at high tide and quickly washing away altogether. This means that the sailboats we build need to be beachable: they need to take to the ground safely and settle upright, instead of flopping over on their keels and holing their sides on rocks. Many other, similarly practical considerations occurred to me in the course of my research, and I spelled them out in an article I wrote at the time, The New Age of Sail {2}.

I then found and purchased Hogfish, which is the type of boat I described in the article: a custom-built ocean-going sharpie. It is a shoal-draft boat, drawing only two feet when normally loaded. It is very solidly built; the builder, Chris Morejohn, who has built some sixty boats over the course of many years, had lost a boat in the Gulf Stream when it collided with something, possibly a submerged shipping container. The next boat he built was designed to survive such a collision without damage. The hull consists of over an inch of cold-molded, laminated plywood, with a very thick fiberglass hull built over that. Yachty people sometimes look at it and ask me whether it’s ferrocement. I tell them that it’s fiberglass with a wood core, and then they think that I don’t know what I am talking about. Yachty people tend to have strong opinions, you see, whereas I couldn’t care less. Hogfish could probably sail clear through a contemporary production fiberglass yacht, leaving two half-yachts foundering in its wake (but I will do my best to leave this hypothesis untested).

It is also uncapsizable: one of the initial sea trials involved sailing out into the Atlantic in a gale, with empty water tanks, and trying to get the mast to touch the water. It turned out to be impossible: Hogfish will wallow at about a 45-degree angle, with all sail up and sheeted in flat. This effect is achieved by using a low aspect ratio rig: 1 to 1.3 or so. The genoa is actually 1 to 1 (it’s a fractional rig) and this means that it can be roller-reefed without adjusting the sheeting angle. At this point a typical snooty yachty person will snort and declare that this boat must sail like a pig. Not so; Hogfish does a perfectly respectable 7.5 knots off the wind, and 5 knots to windward, and points as high as most sloops.

Hogfish is designed to sail, not motor, and so the engine is rather underemphasized. It is an outboard that sits on a bracket under the transom, with the prop projecting to one side of the skeg. It motors at around 5.5 knots with a ten horsepower motor at full throttle, although I prefer a quieter ride and only go four knots when motoring. Where the oily, stinky inboard diesel would normally sit there is a large pantry.

The bottom is perfectly flat side-to-side (it has rocker but no deadrise) allowing it to settle upright at low tide. There is a very substantial centerboard, but it is used only when maneuvering (to make tight turns) and when sailing to windward. On other points of sail, chine runners (little lips sticking out horizontally from the chine) catch enough water to prevent leeway. The centerboard is ballasted so as to bounce easily off the bottom, making it the depth sounder of last resort: if I hear the centerboard tackle jangling, it’s time for a quick about-face. The rudder is a kick-up rudder, its long blade normally kept down by a long nylon tensioner, but folding up and out of the way when encountering an obstacle. This combination of features makes running aground in calm waters a non-event: time to take a nap and wait for the tide to set you afloat again. I have done this on many occasions, both accidentally and on purpose.

In all, Hogfish has proven to be a versatile, safe and seaworthy design. Chris had spent ten years living aboard and sailing Hogfish with his wife. They bore and raised their two daughters while aboard. All of the above still like sailing. And then we bought it, moved aboard, and sailed off into the North Atlantic … in mid-October, just to be funny, I suppose. Now, it may seem reasonable to buy an old sailboat to try an experiment or two, but what’s all this about selling everything else, quitting the job, and going off sailing?

To understand this choice, you need to understand the economics of owning a sailboat in Boston. Given the prices that local marinas charge for dockage (almost same as rent or mortgage on land) there are just two purposes to which sailboats can be put here: ostentation (sport, showing off and so forth) and as one’s primary residence. Most people manage to somehow make ends meet while owning a house and a car and holding down a job, but introducing a sailboat into the equation breaks the bank. The solution, of course, is to get rid of the house, the car and the job. Let us discuss these one at a time.

Just getting rid of the house and living on the boat is a giant leap in the right direction. The amount of stuff that can fit on a boat is much smaller, forcing people to get rid of junk they don’t need and never use, and keeping them from buying more of the same because there is no place to put it. Entire categories of expense, such as furniture, home appliances, various collections of useless, nameless objects, simply fall away. Inevitably, the savings rate shoots through the roof, and, a short while later, it becomes unclear why having a job is all that important: you have more money than time to spend it. Plus, you hardly ever get to go sailing because this thing called “the work-week” keeps getting in the way.

And so, the next item to go is the job. Jobs interfere with sailing. You see, one of the most important facts to understand about sailing is that it does not happen on schedule. You set a general southerly direction and, some months and many adventures later, you find yourself anchored in a turquoise lagoon fringed by yellow sand and palm trees somewhere in the Caribbean; you set a general northerly direction and, a similar duration later, you find yourself anchored in a rocky bay fringed by granite cliffs and pine trees somewhere in Maine or Nova Scotia – unless you decide to stop on the way. But having to be somewhere by next Monday, or making sure that you are able to check your email at all times, or to join a daily conference call or two or three – these things all run contrary to nature’s plan. You will end up fighting the elements instead of going with the wind and sitting out the bad weather, and will probably arrive late anyway.

Once your earthly possessions are down to a storage container full of stuff you will quickly forget is yours, there is still the car. The obvious problem with cars is that they don’t fit on sailboats, and if you want to go sailing, it has to stay on shore. If you are intent on sailing away with no specific return date (see above as to why that is generally the case) then it’s best to give up the car altogether. Bicycles are another story: they can be partially disassembled, bagged, lashed to the lifelines, and ridden anywhere you happen to dock next.

And so we got rid of everything that couldn’t go on the boat, and set sail. In the course of a year, we sailed from Maine to Florida and back, with a long stop, haul-out and refit in Saint Augustine. The refit was called for because, while we were sailing down to Florida, everything on the boat broke. The original design was sound, but Hogfish had a couple of owners between Chris and myself, who Mickey-Moused a great many things in a multitude of amusing but, thankfully, sublethal ways. Hogfish, it turned out, was not a beautiful and/or unique snowflake. It was a learning experience, by the end of which I had attained a level of expertise in all parts of the sailboat, from sail repair to engine mechanics. Along the way, I also introduced a long list of improvements that made life aboard much more pleasant.

Not that it was particularly unpleasant to start with. A sailboat, and ours in particular, makes a very good survival capsule. The constant motion takes getting used to (some of the sportier sailboats have horrible, lurching, unpredictable motion that will break your ribs; ours doesn’t) but the cabin is a safe, cozy, thoughtfully appointed sanctuary from the elements raging outside. I was often amazed when, after dousing wet flogging sails or resetting a dragging anchor in a howling gale, I would descend the companionway, to find the cabin warm, dry and well-lit, my wife reading a book and drinking a cup of tea, and the cat napping on the bed. Most of the discomforts associated with life aboard have to do with being stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time: north during the winter, south during the summer, in the hurricane zone during the hurricane season. But if you avoid these pitfalls by unhurriedly sailing to and fro, life aboard can be positively pleasant.

Nevertheless, the pressures to make the experience even more pleasant are always there, emanating, as they do more often than not, from the female half of the crew. And so, I insulated the cabin, adding layers of foam, radiant barrier, and varnished plywood liner and trim throughout the cabin. I also installed a charcoal stove, for drying out the cabin on rainy, foggy days. I added solar panels and a wind generator, to make sure that we never run out of electricity for lights, instruments and other electronics. Lastly, I installed a propane-heated cockpit shower: the ultimate element of luxury is being able to take a hot shower aboard. But there are two things that make life aboard comfortable more than anything else: avoiding winter, and jobs.

And so, I have been able to validate the ideas I set down in The New Age of Sail. The boat design I described is a sound one; so sound that no amount of inexperience on my part or faulty workmanship on the part of the boat’s intervening owners was able to destroy it or even damage it. Getting back to the idea of post-fossil-fuel-age sail-based transport, seasonal, personal sail transport to warm, sunny places and back is already a reality for those with more time than money. The wind is free, so are anchorages, it is impossible to spend money while underway, and there are desperate people giving away perfectly serviceable sailboats for no money at all. The impediments for executing such a plan are, as I mentioned, the house, the job, the car, and inexperience, although, as I have personally demonstrated, inexperience can be overcome as part of the process if the boat is solidly built and forgiving in its design.

Beyond that, small-scale cargo for inter-island trade is already a possibility. There are many islands in the world that are in dire need of transportation options beyond the big ships that call less and less often and the fiberglass boats with outboard motors that are their only other option. At some point it will become obvious that larger sailing cargo vessels need to be built (the world’s current total cargo capacity under sail is approximately zero). These need not be gigantic ships; even a sixty-foot schooner can provide a valuable service. In fact, only a hundred years ago Boston harbor was permanently clogged with such vessels.

When it comes to building such vessels, the choice of building materials is likely to be limited. Traditional wooden construction is out of the question; the old growth forests that were used to build the tea clippers in the mid-1800 in East Boston, where I am sitting now, no longer exist. Fiberglass is made using oil and natural gas as feedstocks; these are likely to become exotic along with transportation fuels. Steel, especially recycled steel plate from large, soon-to-be-useless diesel-powered ships, will be useful for a time, although welding does require a good supply of electricity, compressed gases and rare earths such as Chinese-mined lanthanum for electrodes. Beyond that, ferrocement, then fiber-cement, will be the remaining choices. Cement and short-strand glass fiber can be made using a solar concentrator from limestone and silica, in a process that can be made self-reproducing without the use of fossil fuels or advanced technologies.

I believe that the design that stands the best chance of success in an unstable environment of shoaling, unmarked channels, eroded or submerged docks and waterfronts and wild weather throughout the year is the design I have been experimented with: an ocean-going, heavily ballasted sharpie or cargo lighter that is beachable. Since Dacron (long-strand polyester) for sails is unlikely to be available, the sail plan must work with weak and stretchy fabric, such as reed or grass mat, and there is just one sail plan that fits: the Chinese junk rig. In fact, old Chinese naval architecture and practice have much to teach us beyond the rig. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if, when the time comes, thousands of Chinese sailing ships will show up out of nowhere and mop up all the remaining ocean freight business.

Sailboats, especially ones that settle upright and can be hauled out of the water, can be put to many uses beyond transportation: they can be used as libraries, as clinics, as factories or mills (anchored in a swift current, they can generate power using an undershot wheel) and as secure storage (with the surrounding water forming a moat for protection).

This brings us to the inevitable question about pirates. I would like to assure you that, since the invention of reliable, accurate firearms, mutual assured destruction has prevailed on the high seas: anything that floats can be sunk. A typical way of fighting off pirates now involves a drill similar to shooting skeet: toss a bottle in the water, and blast away at it with a shotgun. Sometimes a simple show of arms is enough: thrust a hand holding a rifle out of a hatch, and the erstwhile pirates say “Thank you, have a nice day” and move on to a softer target. Add to this the fact that one man’s pirate is another man’s freedom fighter/revolutionary. Piracy is and has always been about class warfare. If you are floating by in a well-appointed yacht, teak and bronze and your Rolex glinting in the sun, then it is a point of pride for a pirate to take you down. But if you are floating by in a shantyboat with patched sails, laundry flapping from the lifelines and a couple of goats tethered to the mast and trying to eat your sails, then maybe the prates will just want to be your friends. Finally, piracy is just another way of doing business: continuation of commerce by other means. And there is much more of a chance of that inland, where people can easily find you (on the road, most likely) whereas out on the water it is very much hit or miss, especially if you are in no hurry and sailing random courses far out of sight of land rather than shooting a beeline from headland to headland.

Having done all of this exploratory work, I am now contemplating actually getting started in the sail transport business. Just one sixty-foot boat would roughly double the world’s overall sailing cargo capacity. It doesn’t have to be built from scratch: there are many possible retrofits. These can sometimes pay for themselves, if one pulls and sells the engine.

But one thing I discovered is that it is best not to try to do it in the US. First, too many people here still have their heads up their asses, and they won’t smell any better once they pull them out. (Pardon me for cursing like a sailor.) Secondly, there are too many laws here, and too many lawyers. Lastly, it’s a big huge world out there, full of easy-going, friendly people who won’t have too many issues with you not keeping to a tight schedule – which you won’t be, because you will be sailing.




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