What We Owe to Each Other

An Interview with David Graeber, Part One

by David V Johnson

Boston Review (February 15 2012)

David Graeber leads a busy double life. By day, he is an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London. By night, he is an anarchist and activist, best known for being the “Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street” {1}, as Bloomberg Businessweek dubbed him. In his latest book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) {2}, Graeber marries his academic and activist selves by dissecting our moral confusion about debt, showing both how contingent our intuitions are in the light of anthropology and how our obtuseness has led to the mass suffering of austerity programs and financial crashes. In part one of his two-part interview, Web Editor David Johnson talks to Graeber about why we don’t put babies’ lives ahead of Citibank’s shareholders, what it means to be a conservative nowadays, and whether we should renew the tradition of debt jubilees.

David Graeber / photo by Jimmy Fontaine

David Johnson: What inspired you to write the book?

David Graeber: It came out of the strange moral power that debt has over people. So many times you’re talking to people about the depredations of the International Monetary Fund in the third world, telling these horrible stories about the thousands of babies dying of preventable diseases because people aren’t allowed to maintain malaria-eradication campaigns or basic health services due to austerity measures and debt servicing, and people respond, “Well, yeah, but you can’t say they don’t owe the money. People have got to pay their debts, come on!” That common-sensical notion not only that it’s moral to pay one’s debt, but also that morality essentially is a matter of paying one’s debts can bring people to justify things that they would never think to justify in any other circumstance. For the most part, decent people tend not to think killing lots of babies is justifiable under any circumstances. But debt somehow changes all that. Why is that?

DJ: You launch the book with an anecdote about debating an attorney who was an otherwise decent person but who insisted that countries indebted to the IMF must pay back their loans. The book is a sort of rejoinder to her and to people like her, but it’s a very long-winded answer, in that you appeal to 5,000 years of history and anthropology. Why doesn’t your immediate answer – “Look, the consequences of forcing these countries to pay their debt are babies dying of malaria and starvation” – suffice?

DG: Obviously my immediate answer wasn’t enough or she wouldn’t have said what she did. That’s why I felt I had to write the book: because you’d think it would be self-evident that killing thousands of babies – so that Citibank avoids losing one percent of its interest on a loan which is the tiniest percentage of its portfolio and will not actually affect the lives of their shareholders in any way – is wrong. You would think that would be morally self-evident, but it’s not.

DJ: In some ways the argument of the book reminded me of the philosopher Bernard Williams.

DG: How so?

DJ: He thought that morality was a “peculiar institution” in that it places so much weight on the notion of obligation over all our other values, and things we care about and find important – the thought that we ought morally to do something is supposed to trump everything else we value. In a similar way the book examines how debt – the notion that you ought to pay your debt, you ought to pay what you owe – has this peculiar grip on us that trumps or silences other concerns.

DG: And has a tendency to do so, yeah!

DJ: In thinking about the relationship between the moral “ought” – “You ought to fulfill your promise”, for example – and this notion of debt – “You ought to pay your debt” – I’m wondering whether they speak in the same voice.

DG: However you want to take that, it comes out the same way, except supercharged. In the same way that the “ought” trumps all other values, debt trumps all other “oughts”. And I argue in the book that one reason why medieval theologians, whether Christian or Muslim, seemed so inherently suspicious about usury is because it creates a moral imperative that tends to trump all others. They recognized a potentially dangerous rival when they saw one, a moral system that would completely overwhelm their own if it was allowed full rein.

One reason I thought all the history helpful is because there are these simplistic moral arguments and the second line of defense for the people who are defending the existing system is to say, “All right, fine, it’s not just. We’re not saying the existing financialized version of capitalism is a good system. But it foments technological change in such a way that, even though it creates vast inequalities, the poor are still better off than they would be under another system.”

DJ: Steven Pinker just came out with his book, with a similarly optimistic picture of liberal capitalism.

DG: And that’s very unusual, actually, that Pinker is still trying to come up with these lines, because most defenders of capitalism are not doing the Pinker approach – “Yes, it’s actually better”. They realize that they can’t. They’re just saying “All right, it’s not the best system in the world, but no other system is possible anyway”.

The instinct of the people now in power is to figure out how to change things as little as possible.

What we’ve seen over the last thirty years is a war on the human imagination. That’s the other starting point for this book – that in 2008 we had this crash, and all these assumptions we’ve been told we’ve had to accept for thirty years came crashing to the ground along with the market. One of them is the assumption that markets are actually self-sustaining. Obviously not true. Another one was that the people running them are competent. For years we were told that they aren’t very nice people – they’re greedy bastards, actually – but they know what they’re doing. All other systems just don’t work. These guys are incredibly bright, they’re incredibly competent. No, it turns out actually that they don’t even understand the working of their own financial instruments, or as far as they do, they’re engaged in scams. They trashed the entire system.

Assumption number three is that all debts ought to be repaid. Actually, no, debts don’t really need to be repaid, because AIG, who owes money, can wave a variety of different magic wands and debts can be made to disappear. Once you understand that the narrative we’ve been handed has been false, you’d think this would be the moment when you start thinking about larger questions: Why do we have an economy? What is debt? What is money? How could these things be organized differently? What do we need to keep and what do we change? You would think this would be the moment for international discussion about the basic assumptions that we’ve been making, and it seemed for about two weeks that it was going to happen.

DJ: You’re talking about 2008?

DG: Yes. The Economist put out this headline saying: “Capitalism – Was it a Good Idea?” {3} And obviously their conclusion was yes, because they’re The Economist, but nonetheless the question had to be asked.

DJ: The Financial Times recently ran a series of articles {4} similar to The Economist’s. Has the conversation you thought we should have had really ended?

DG: It was cut off. That was one reason I wrote this book: we were supposed to have this conversation, people started to, and then there was this general panic among people running things saying “No, no, no, stop that. Just carry on. Just clap your hands over your ears. Nothing to see here, keep moving along.”

DJ: “Keep calm and carry on”.

DG: “Keep calm and carry on”. That only worked for so long, and we finally reached the point where that’s obviously not viable anymore. Enough people have said, “No, we have to start talking about this”. Perhaps that’s one reason why the book has been received as well as it has: people are finally exasperated at ignoring the problem.

And in a larger sense, there’s been this attack on the human imagination. There’s been this sense that you can’t talk about the big questions, it’s all settled. And when we found out it wasn’t, there’s this sort of paralysis that strikes.

I keep thinking about the extraordinary conservatism of the people running the world economy, running the governments of the largest nations of the world. Let’s compare it to ages past: let’s think about the people who fought World War Two, let’s think about the 1950s, the giant structures like the United Nations, Bretton Woods, the space program –  those people were capable of thinking big. We don’t do that anymore. The instinct of the people now in power is to figure out how to change things as little as possible. The world political culture has turned into this knee-jerk defensive conservatism of trying desperately to maintain things exactly as they are, for as long a period as possible.

DJ: It seems to me that it’s even worse than that, in the sense that the current postwar order is violating its own hard-won principles. You get liberal economists like Paul Krugman asking “How is it possible that we can be implementing austerity in a time like this?”

DG: Yeah. They all knew austerity was a bad idea economically, but they tried to do something that might be good economically and discovered that they weren’t even allowed to do it; so they thought, “Well, we have to do something. We’ll do this other plan even though it’s bad.” It’s very odd.

The current political regime in Washington is a great example of the fundamental conservatism of global leaders. I think that’s one of the explanations for why you have young people finally showing up in the streets. We had this guy who ran as a candidate of change. He didn’t run as a radical, but he had all the social-movement rhetoric that made you think that actually he was going to do things differently. His candidacy mobilized grass roots supporters as if this were a social movement. It was all very self-conscious, and all these young people became politicized and thought this was going to actually mean some kind of profound change.

And what do we get? We get this guy who is basically a classic conservative. The word conservative has changed in contemporary American English; now it means “extreme radical reactionary” or “right-winger”. But in the old-fashioned sense of wishing to conserve existing institutions in as much a viable long-term form, that’s what Obama turned out to be. Pretty much everything he’s done is along the lines of “How can we save the auto industry? How can we preserve the banking system without nationalizing it, without changing it in any fundamental way?” He did not map out a great new vision of a health system. He said the system we have is not viable, but here’s a plan where we can preserve the same principles of profit-driven private health in a form that will be sustainable. So basically this is a guy who is willing to make heroic efforts not to change.

And yet it’s at a moment when you have Democrats seizing both houses of Congress, a charismatic President taking leadership over the financial crisis where it’s almost impossible not to change anything, and a popular rage against existing financial elites willing to accept emergency measures … If at a moment like that you can’t get any sort of progressive change through electoral means, it’s not going to happen.

DJ: Regarding your mention of the “war on the imagination”, the book offers numerous anthropological cases of different societies and how they used money, and you use many more examples than you need to make your argument. What the book does as a reading exercise is enliven one’s imagination to the multitude of possibilities there are in how we can think about debt.

DG: That’s precisely what I was trying to do. One reason to spread the canvas so broadly – the same thing that drew me to anthropology – is that you fight the idea that all these questions are settled, that there’s really only one way to run the economy, the political system, society. What you see when you look at history, if you look anthropologically across the world, even at any one time, is a dazzling infinite variety of social possibilities. Which you would never have dreamed possible until you see them. It makes it much more difficult to make the argument that nothing except what we’ve got is possible.

Capitalism is just a bad way of organizing communism.

DJ: How do we get beyond our ways of thinking about debt, given how entrenched they are? We don’t live in an African tribal society or in the Roman Empire.

DG: There are two levels of that. One of the things that I was trying really hard to do was to demonstrate that, for all that variety, you’re not talking about fundamentally different principles. It’s not like other peoples live in an entirely untranslatable, unintelligible universe. The fact that we can do anthropology means they’re building the things out of the same materials that we are; they’re just putting the pieces together in different ways. And once you understand that and look back at your own society, you just see it with new eyes. And that’s again what I was trying to do, to start by talking about radically different sorts of economic systems and ways that people interact with one another.

So I think one of the questions I’m asking in the book is not just about the power of debt but also why we come to see debt – exchange whereby complete transactions are debts – as being the essence of all social relations, because the very logic of exchange is just one of many ways that we ourselves think of the morality of distribution and transfer of material goods. There are always different registers and different moralities that we bring to bear, but the basic principles really are the same everywhere you go. So the moment you realize that everything we’re doing is not an exchange, suddenly you realize that forms of feudal hierarchy actually exist right here, but forms of communism also exist right here. Almost any social possibility already exists and is part of the daily fabric of our existence. We’re just taught not to notice it or think it’s particularly important.

DJ: That argument reminded me of philosopher Jerry [G A] Cohen, who uses the notion of a camping trip to examine the sort of norms we take for granted in everyday relations. They’re communist norms.

DG: Yeah! Most interactions with people that you trust, people that you love, or people that just need to cooperate with on an immediate basis, take the form of “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. It doesn’t matter if you’re working for the government, working for a corporation, or working in your family; if you need to fix the toilet because it’s leaking and you say “Hand me the wrench”, the other guy doesn’t say “What do I get for that?” It’s not an exchange; people act according to their abilities to chip in. Ironically communism is applied because it’s the only thing that works; it’s the most efficient way to allocate resources. Thus I like to say that you could argue that capitalism is just a bad way of organizing communism. [laughter]

DJ: At the end of the book, you suggest one policy proposal of a sort, namely a jubilee, or a cancellation of all debts.

DG: Well, it’s not really a policy proposal – I don’t believe in policy. I’m an anarchist, right? Policy means other people making decisions for you.

DJ: Right. Have you thought about how a jubilee would work right now, in terms of all the underwater mortgages in this country or on the sovereign debt crisis in Europe?

DG: I haven’t worked it out; I’m not an economist. But there are people who have. Boston Consulting Group, I believe, ran a model recently and came to the conclusion that, while having a debt jubilee would cause great economic disruption, not having one would create even more. The situation we have basically isn’t viable. Some kind of radical solution is going to be required at some point; the question is what form it’s going to take.

This time around, they might consider doing it in a form that actually helps ordinary people. It would have been perfectly feasible to take the trillions of dollars that they essentially printed to bail out the banks and give it to mortgage holders, because what the banks had were mortgage-based securities that were no good anymore. If they just paid the mortgages using the same money, that in effect would have bailed out the banks.

DJ: That wouldn’t have been a debt cancellation.

DG: Well, I’m just giving an example. It would have had the same effect as a debt cancellation, because they would have printed money to pay the debts. The irony is that they chose instead to give the money directly to the banks and not bail out the mortgage-holders. Which is a pattern that you see over and over again in world history – one of the more dramatic consistencies I’ve noticed in the history of debt: debts between equals are not the same as debts between people who are not equals.

Debts between either poor people or rich people, that they have with each other, can be renegotiated or forgiven. People can be extraordinarily generous, understanding, forgiving when dealing with others like themselves. But debts between social classes, between the rich and the poor, suddenly become a matter of absolute morality. And that’s what we saw; it’s a very, very old pattern.


{1} http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/david-graeber-the-antileader-of-occupy-wall-street-10262011.html

{2} http://www.powells.com/biblio/9781933633862?&PID=35607

{3} http://www.economist.com/node/12429544

{4} http://www.ft.com/intl/indepth/capitalism-in-crisis


David Graeber is Reader of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011).

David V Johnson is Web editor at Boston Review.

To read Part Two of the interview, click here: http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.1/david_graeber_debt_economics_occupy_wall_street_part2.php


The Price of Admission

by Thomas Frank

Harper’s Magazine Easy Chair (June 2012)

A vignette from the campaign trail, circa March 2012: The Republican front-runner was taking questions at a town-hall meeting in Mahoning Valley, Ohio. A high school senior rose to explain that he was on his way to college, but that he worried about the cost. Although the student didn’t mention it – he scarcely needed to – tuition increases have been outpacing inflation for decades, and these days college graduates routinely begin their working lives deep in debt. What was Mitt Romney going to do about it?

In response, Romney gave one of his patented lessons in managerial smugness. The solution was to “recognize that college is expensive” but that competition “works”. No “government money” would be forthcoming under a Romney regime, the candidate went on, to the kind of applause that these days seems to follow any public declaration of tight-fisted self-righteousness. And so it was up to the student-consumer himself to “shop around”, compare the goods offered up in the freewheeling marketplace of educational choice, and make the best decision he could.

Ordinarily, conservatives are willing to believe the absolute worst about the groves of academe. In their view, college is a gilded re-education camp, where innocent children of the entrepreneurial class are turned into brainwashed Maoist cadres, chanting slogans and grinding away the hours in a sexual frolic. The university’s scholarly departments, they believe, are filled with political extremists; its graduates are snobs; its concern with diversity is a form of censorship; its scientists tell lies in order to further the “global warming” power grab or prepare the ground for more stem-cell monkey business.

Academia’s pricing, however, is apparently A-OK. Nothing wrong here. Consumers shop around, they compare and contrast, and they get the best deal they can, reassured all the while by their awareness that competition works. Just don’t come whining to the government for help.

But what if competition doesn’t work? What if academia’s pricing, which has hung student debt like a millstone around the neck of an entire generation, is completely out of whack?

This is not the first time such questions have been posed. Twenty years ago, under the presidency of George H W Bush, the Department of Justice charged the Ivy League universities and MIT with conspiring to restrict financial-aid awards, and thus to fix prices. Officers of the various Ivy League schools, it seems, were then in the habit of meeting several times a year to discuss tuition increases, faculty salaries, and financial-aid packages with their supposed competitors. It was classic price-fixing behavior – Attorney General Dick Thomburgh called the schools a “collegiate cartel” – and the antitrust violation seemed obvious on its face. The Ivies settled immediately after the suit was filed in 1991, signing a consent decree that forbade them to collude over tuition, salary, or financial-aid awards. (The decree expired in 2001.) {1}

To judge from newspaper reports, the Ivy League antitrust suit was to some degree a reaction against out-of-control tuition costs, of the sort that still rankle us today. The 1980s were, after all, the first great period of galloping tuition inflation. Parents of college students were understandably outraged as the total price of a year at, say, Princeton outpaced the cost of a new car and began to approach the annual income of the typical American. (When the Justice Department launched its antitrust investigation, annual tuitions at Ivy League schools were in the neighborhood of $16,000; today they are around $41,000, and once you factor in room and board, the tab is closer to $54,000.)

Looking back from twenty years on, it’s clear that the antitrust suit did little to rein in tuition increases. Some believe it may have driven costs even higher. But the central facts are worth remembering: the most prestigious universities in America were acting like a cartel, consumers screamed in protest, and thanks to the quaint democratic dynamic that still sometimes prevailed in those days – even when Republicans were in power – government acted.

Today, of course, we know better. The situation may be exponentially worse, and we may have a Democrat who burbles constantly from the presidential throne about the wonders of an educated public, but we have seen the light: we have learned about Markets. As Mitt Romney says, we know that competition exists, and that it will always guarantee us the best possible deal.

Oh, government can help in some regards. It can shovel out the student loans that subsidize the booming education industry. It can enforce tough bankruptcy standards, which make it virtually impossible for students to escape their indebtedness and thereby encourage private companies to write even more loans. And, of course, government can take the blame when the whole structure comes toppling down in a cascade of defaults, involving not only the loans themselves but also the asset-backed securities into which those loans have been so cunningly packaged. All we will need on that occasion is another Rick Santelli to rail against the liberal-arts deadbeats – those government-funded loafers responsible for ruining millions of hardworking derivatives investors {2}.

But do something to control costs? Draft a bailout plan for students in debt? Resolve to make state schools so cheap and so excellent that they drive down tuition everywhere? We might as well collectivize agriculture, or embark on a five-year plan for tractor production.

One of the arguments that the Ivy League brass made in their defense back in 1991 was that universities were not businesses but charitable institutions. This struck them as axiomatic, because of a very simple economic fact: tuition costs were high, but they could have been much, much higher.

After all, what universities were selling then, and what they are selling today, is an extremely valuable commodity: entry into what sociologists call the professional-managerial class. There’s a reason that Lexus LX 570 that almost ran you down in the crosswalk the other day had a harvard sticker neatly centered on its rear window. And it isn’t because the driver believes we would all profit from immersing ourselves in theories of intersectionality, or because of a lifelong attachment to Crimson field hockey. That sticker is there because Harvard is a crucial part of who that SUV driver is. A college degree from a prestigious school is the credential that matters most in American life, and growing college-enrollment figures suggest that an increasing number of Americans have figured this out.

Why do they think this? Because just about everyone tells them that it is so. We live in a “knowledge economy”, the consensus assures us, and awesome universities are both America’s great competitive advantage over the rest of the world and every child’s ticket to personal financial success.

In such a situation, the fact that the cost of attending an elite college has spiraled up like a runaway ICBM is utterly unsurprising, and it has little to do with the expenses involved in transferring wisdom from the professor’s head into yours {3}. An annual pass to Disneyland would also cost $54,000 if society believed that what it took to make you eligible for success was a great many hours spent absorbing the subtle lessons of the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. And absent any flood of top-tier, quaintly antique universities into the marketplace, such costs will continue to increase until they hit the limit that people will pay for such a golden ticket. Ten years from now, in fact, college students may well look back with jealousy on their predecessors who got away with a mere hundred grand in debt.

Even in 1991, it had been a long time since anyone took seriously what the universities offered as their all-purpose defense: that everything they do is permissible because they are charitable institutions. Charitable institutions do not exploit the labor of their charges, nor do they relentlessly bid down their wages, as universities do with the graduate students and new PhDs who take on much of the teaching. They don’t run their endowments as you would a hedge fund (or, as is often the case, invest them directly in such concerns). They don’t take kickbacks to steer kids into the toothy mouths of expensive private lenders. They don’t sell their souls for seats on corporate boards or research grants from tobacco companies or a Division I title. They don’t replace scholarly leaders with armies of professional managers who proceed to fiddle with the curriculum, funnel resources to business schools, and strive for supremacy as (in the winning words of one expert on the subject)
“one among many industries that pursue intellectual properties”. These are the deeds of profit-maximizing entities. The fact that universities don’t have shareholders and don’t pay exorbitant bonuses to top officers is merely a matter of organizational detail.

Then again, given the valuable cultural real estate that universities control, one wonders why it took them so long to actualize their inner corporation. We are living in a golden age of price discovery, in which our masters have figured out that no one is going to stop them from charging as much as they want for necessities that ought to be or used to be considered public goods. Medicine, of course, is the classic example: how much can they get Americans to pay for the chemotherapy they need to stay alive? Electric power was also, briefly, an arena for this kind of behavior, back when Enron was selectively plunging millions of California households into darkness. And before long, they will no doubt have figured out ways to extend the logic to other necessities: food, highways, public safety, political representation, a prime poolside spot in the afterlife, all of them yielding whatever the traffic will bear.

It is easy to criticize the corporatization of education, since the examples are so plentiful and almost no one denies that it’s taking place. But criticizing it is different from actually halting its progress – a political step we seem unable to take.

Indeed, the trends all point in the opposite direction. Until recently, the United Kingdom, which has long had one of the best higher-education systems in the world, capped university fees at the annual equivalent of $5,200. (Before 1998, tuition was free throughout the United Kingdom.) Now Britain is moving rapidly toward the American model, with its galaxy of private, for-profit institutions and its staggering price tags. It is doing so because British leaders, like their American brethren, have convinced themselves that what universities are really about is getting rich; that they exist to deliver the goods in the knowledge economy; and that in order to prepare students for wealth accumulation in a lean-and-mean knowledge-transmission sector, they must be made to pay for what they receive. Without indebtedness to sharpen the point of the stick (and make the carrot seem that much juicier), students will just sit around in their quadrangles as they always have, wallowing in pointless disciplines and tossing frisbees.

Massive indebtedness changes a person, maybe even more than a college education does, and it’s reasonable to suspect that the politicos who have allowed the tuition disaster to take its course know this. To saddle young people with enormous, inescapable debt – total student debt – is now more than one trillion dollars – is ultimately to transform them into profit-maximizing machines. I mean, working as a schoolteacher or an editorial assistant at a publishing house isn’t going to help you chip away at that forty grand you owe. You can’t get out of it by bankruptcy, either. And our political leaders, lost in a fantasy of punitive individualism, certainly won’t propose the bailout measures they could take to rescue the young from the crushing burden.

What will happen to the young debtors instead is that they will become Homo economicus, whether or not they studied that noble creature. David Graeber, the anthropologist who wrote the soon-to-be-classic Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), likens the process to a horror movie, in which the zombies or the vampires attack the humans as a kind of recruitment policy. “They turn you into one of them”, as Graeber told me.

Actually, they do worse than that. Graeber relates the story of a woman he met who got a PhD from Columbia University, but whose $80,000 debt load put an academic career off-limits, since adjuncts earn close to nothing. Instead, the woman wound up working as an escort for Wall Street types. “Here’s someone who ought to be a professor”, Graeber explains, “doing sexual services for the guys who lent her the money”.

The story hit home for me, because I, too, wanted to be a professor once. I remember the waves of enlightenment that washed over me in my first few years in college, the ecstasy of finally beginning to understand what moved human affairs this way or that, the exciting sense of a generation arriving at a shared sensibility. Oh, I might have gone on doing that kind of work forever, whether or not it made me rich, if journalism had not intervened.

It’s hard to find that kind of ecstasy among the current crop of college graduates. The sensibility shared by their generation seems to revolve around student debt, which has been clamped onto them like some sort of interest-bearing iron maiden. They’ve been screwed – that’s what their moment of enlightenment has taught them.

As for my own cohort, or at least the members of it who struggled through and made it to one of the coveted positions in the knowledge factory, the new generational feeling seems to be one of disgust. Our enthusiasm for learning, which we trumpeted to the world, merely led the nation’s children into debt bondage. Consider the remarks of Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor of media at New York University, who sums up the diminishing returns of the profession on his blog:


I used to say that in academia one at least did very little harm. Now I feel like a pimp for loan sharks.




{1} MIT chose to fight on alone. The school was convicted of price fixing in US District Court in 1992, but the following year, an appeals court sent the case back for review. Before the trial could begin again, MIT settled as well, working out a compromise with the Justice Department that was subsequently written into law.

{2] When that day comes, you can be pretty sure that tomorrow’s Tea Partiers will also blame the usual scapegoats: college professors who teach inexcusably airy subjects like English and philology (but never the professors who teach marketing or civil procedure).

{3} The ascending cost of state universities is propelled by an obvious, additional cause: cutbacks in state funding.

Syria: Washington’s Latest War Crime

by Paul Craig Roberts

Institute for Political Economy (July 26 2012)

One wonders what Syrians are thinking as “rebels” vowing to “free Syria” take the country down the same road to destruction as “rebels” in Libya. Libya, under Gaddafi a well run country whose oil revenues were shared with the Libyan people instead of monopolized by a princely class as in Saudi Arabia, now has no government and is in disarray with contending factions vying for power.

Just as no one knew who the Libyan “rebels” were, with elements of al Qaeda reportedly among them, no one knows who the Syrian “rebels” are, or indeed if they are even rebels {1}. Some “rebels” appear to be bandit groups who seize the opportunity to loot and to rape and set themselves up as the governments of villages and towns. Others appear to be al Qaeda. {2}

The fact that the “rebels” are armed is an indication of interference from outside. There have been reports that Washington has ordered its Saudi and Bahrain puppet governments to supply the “rebels” with military weaponry. Some suspect that the explosion that killed the Syrian Defense Minister and the head of the government’s crisis operations was not the work of a suicide bomber but the work of a US drone or missile reminiscent of Washington’s failed attempts to murder Saddam Hussein. Regardless, Washington regarded the terror attack as a success, declaring that it showed the rebels were gaining “real momentum” and called on the Syrian government to respond to the attack by resigning. {3}

The following is from a leaked intelligence document describing a previous Western terrorist intervention in Syria just in case any reader is so naive as to think that “our government would never do that.”



In order to facilitate the action of liberative (sic) forces, …a special effort should be made to eliminate certain key individuals. …[to] be accomplished early in the course of the uprising and intervention, …

Once a political decision has been reached to proceed with internal disturbances in Syria, CIA is prepared, and SIS (MI6) will attempt to mount minor sabotage and coup de main (sic) incidents within Syria, working through contacts with individuals. …Incidents should not be concentrated in Damascus …

Further: a “necessary degree of fear .. frontier incidents and (staged) border clashes”, would “provide a pretext for intervention… the CIA and SIS [MI6] should use … capabilities in both psychological and action fields to augment tension”. (Joint US-UK leaked Intelligence Document, London and Washington, 1957) {4}



Obama has not said why his government is so desperate to overthrow the Syrian government. The current president was an eye doctor in London who was brought back to Syria to replace his father, who had passed away, as president of the country. Washington is reticent about its real motives, which it masks with high-sounding humanitarian rhetoric, but Washington’s motives are transparent.

One motive is to get rid of the Russian naval base in Syria, thus depriving Russia of its only Mediterranean base.

A second motive is to eliminate Syria as a source of arms and support to Hizbullah in order that Israel can succeed in its attempts to occupy southern Lebanon and acquire its water resources. Hizbullah’s fighters have twice defeated the Israeli military’s attempts to invade and to occupy southern Lebanon.

A third motive is to destroy the unity of Syria with sectarian conflict, as Washington destroyed Libya and Iraq, and leave Syria to waring factions to dismember the country, thus removing another obstacle to Washington’s hegemony.

Syria, a secular Arab state, like Iraq was, is ruled by a political party composed of Alawis, more or less Shia Muslims. The Alawis comprise about twelve percent of the Syrian population and are regarded as heretics by the Sunni Muslims who comprise about 74% of the Syrian population. Thus the orchestrated “uprising” appeals to many Sunnis who see the opportunity to take over. (In Iraq it was a Sunni minority that ruled a Shia majority, and in Syria it is the opposite.)

The divisions among Arabs make Arabs vulnerable to Western interference and rule. The Sunni-Shia split makes it impossible for an Arab country to unite against an invader or for one Arab country to come to the aid of another. In 1990 the Shia Syrian government lined up with the US against the Sunni Iraq government in the First Iraq War. Neither Lawrence of Arabia, Nasser, nor Gaddafi succeeded in creating an Arab consciousness.

Washington’s cover for its violent overthrow of other governments is always moralistic verbiage. First the target is demonized, and then Washington’s naked aggression is described as “bringing freedom and democracy”, “overthrowing a brutal dictator”, “protecting women’s rights”. Any assortment of cant words and phrases seems to work.

Hillary Clinton has been especially strident in advocating the overthrow of the Syrian government. The silly woman even issued threats to Russia and China for daring to block Washington’s attempt to use a UN resolution as cover for invading Syria. Washington misrepresents the Syrian government’s resistance to being overthrown as a government conducting terror against its own people. But Washington had no condemnation for the terror attack, whether its own or that of a suicide bomber, that killed high-level Syrian government officials. Washington’s double standard prompted the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, to accuse Washington of having “a sinister position”.

Indeed, Washington does. But what is surprising about Washington’s sinister position after Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan? Undoubtedly, after Syria is overthrown, Washington will move on to Iran. Russia itself is already being surrounded by US missile bases, and the Russian government has a disloyal and traitorous political opposition financed by American money. China is confronting a rapid buildup of US air, naval, and troop bases in the Pacific. How long before China’s government has a disloyal opposition financed by Washington?

The hegemon is on the march, but what Syrian Sunnis see is a chance to overthrow the Alawite Shia. The Syrian Sunnis will ally with Washington despite the fact that Washington overthrew the Iraqi Sunnis. Few Arabs, it seems, mind being puppets of a foreign regime that hands out billions of dollars.

Washington loosely refers to Syrian President Assad as a “dictator” or “brutal dictator”, but obviously if Assad is a dictator he is not very effective in that role. Normally, dictators don’t permit an opposition to rise, much less arm itself. It would be more accurate to say that the ruling party is authoritarian, but the ruling party has introduced elements of democracy with the new constitution.

As Iraq has proved, Arab governments have to be authoritarian if their Sunni and Shia populations are not to be constantly engaged in civil war. Both Bush and Obama claim that Washington brought “freedom and democracy” to Iraq. However, the ongoing violence in Iraq is as intense or more intense than under the American occupation. Here are the reports for the last three days:

July 23: “A wave of bomb attacks and shootings in Baghdad and north of the capital has killed at least 107 people. At least 216 were wounded.”

July 24: “A second day of intensified attacks left at least 145 Iraqis killed and 379 more wounded”.

July 25: “Attacks continue across Iraq: 17 killed, 60 wounded”.

This is what Washington did for Iraq. Far from bringing “freedom and democracy”, Washington brought endless mayhem and death. And this is precisely what Washington is in the process of bringing to Syria.


{1} http://news.antiwar.com/2012/07/24/in-syrias-rebels-us-doesnt-know-who-its-aiding/print/

{2} http://news.antiwar.com/2012/07/25/al-qaeda-infiltrating-syrian-opposition-with-us-support/print/

{3} http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/18/us-syria-crisis-reaction-idUSBRE86H0IR20120718

{4} http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=29234%20%20See%20also:%20http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=29127


Dr Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy and associate editor of the Wall Street Journal. He was columnist for Business Week, Scripps Howard News Service, and Creators Syndicate. He has had many university appointments. His internet columns have attracted a worldwide following.


On the Far Side of Denial

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (July 18 2012)

Any readers of The Archdruid Report who grew up, as I did, watching old black and white science fiction serials repackaged for the afternoon TV market may be forgiven for an overload of deja vu just now.  Somewhere near the end of any given serial, there’s inevitably a moment when the evil overlord says, “No! This cannot be! I am invincible!” It’s usually a close-up shot on the evil overlord’s sinister face, and it’s followed within fifteen seconds or so by a cataclysmic explosion that vaporizes the evil overlord, his death ray, his fortress of doom, his legions of terror, and everything else within a couple of planetary diameters or so, except the hero and any other characters who are sympathetic enough to be allowed by the scriptwriters to get to safety behind the zarkonite shield.


Well, it’s been said. Get ready for the explosion.

The example I’m thinking of right now is Lord Browne, formerly the chairman of British Petroleum and now a major player in the fracking industry. A few days ago, in a public appearance, he insisted that the United States would be able to stop importing foreign oil by 2030, because the supply of shale gas that would be made available to the US by fracking technology was, and I quote, effectively infinite {1}.



I found myself wondering if Lord Browne might possibly have been one of the contestants in the Monty Python Upper Class Twit Of The Year Contest {2} skit which, in a nice bit of synchronicity, a reader forwarded to me right about the time that his lordship was making a very public fool of himself. Browne has been employed for some time in the oil industry, and therefore has had every opportunity to find out that the word “infinite” does not belong in any meaningful statement about fossil fuels. Now of course he may simply have been engaged in the same sort of puffery that we saw not too long ago from mortgage brokers and real estate agents, who had pressing financial reasons to spend much of their time expressing equally expansive and equally inaccurate notions of where their market was headed. Still, I suspect there’s more going on than this.

Over the last six months or so an extraordinary torrent of nonsense about limitless gas and oil supplies has been sloshing through the media, spouting out from an equally extraordinary assortment of people who ought to know better. We’ve seen pundits loudly claiming that the United States had become a net petroleum exporter, when what was going on was that modest amounts of gasoline and other refined petroleum products that Americans are too poor to afford nowadays are being sold to more prosperous countries abroad. We’ve seen fracking technology, which the oil industry has been using for decades, waved around as a brand new technological breakthrough; we’ve seen the Bakken shale, which has been known since the 1970s and doesn’t actually have that much accessible oil in it, ballyhooed as a brand new game-changing discovery; we’ve seen the most blatant falsehoods proclaimed as fact – I’m thinking here of the pundit I critiqued in a previous post, who insisted that kerogen shales are exactly the same as what’s being drilled in the Bakken, and that the US therefore has some absurd amount of shale oil ready for pumping.

Over the last few weeks, a number of my fellow peak oil writers have expressed worries about this outpouring of counterfactual drivel. Myself, I find it a very hopeful sign. What we are seeing is the shattering of the consensus that has excluded any discussion of peak oil from the collective conversation of our time. Plenty of pundits who refused to talk about peak oil at all are now talking about it incessantly.  Even though they’re screeching at the top of their lungs that it can’t happen, and scrabbling around for any argument, however feeble or blatantly false, they can use to back up that proposition, they’re still talking about it.

That is to say, industrial society is collectively entering the stage of denial.

The application of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief to the process of dealing with peak oil has become common enough in the peak oil scene that an offhand reference to one stage or another in a talk or blog post on the subject rarely needs an explanation.  It’s not just peak oil: the sequence of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance has become part of the common currency of thought in the modern world. For all its drawbacks and critics – and it has plenty of both – the five stages do a tolerably good job of modeling the way many people go through the grieving process in most contexts, which is after all as much as any theoretical structure can be expected to do.

Whatever its more general applicability, furthermore, it very often fits the experience that people have when they start to wrestle with peak oil and everything that it implies. Those of us who have been in the peak oil scene for a while now have watched plenty of people stumble their way through it one step at a time. There’s the denial stage – no, that can’t possibly happen, I’m sure they’ll come up with something, there must be plenty of oil around here somewhere.  There’s the anger stage – it’s all the fault of the politicians, the bankers, the oil companies, David Icke’s evil space lizards, or somebody, and if we just denounce them loudly enough on our favorite blogs, we’ll be fine.  There’s the bargaining stage – okay, the age of abundance is over, but if we build lots of wind turbines or buy organic coffee or go to one more round of meetings where we all come to a consensus about the nice cozy future we think we want, it’ll all work out, right?  There’s the depression phase – we’ve failed as a species, humanity is irremediably awful, it would be better for the whole cosmos if Gaia just got it over with and chucked us into extinction’s compost heap, and so on. Then, finally, comes acceptance, when you’ve finished dealing with your emotional issues about the end of the petroleum age and can get to work at last on the practical stuff.

Now of course some people go through the stages in a different order, some people skip one or more of them, and some people get stuck in one or another of them. (Kubler-Ross recognized that the same thing happens in the kinds of grieving she studied, a point her critics don’t often remember.)  Still, the model stays in use in the peak oil scene because something roughly comparable to the five stage process can be traced in the experiences of a lot of people who go through a peak oil awakening. That much is a fairly common realization  in the peak oil scene; what I don’t think many of us anticipated, though, is that the same process might happen on a collective level as well. I suggest that this is what’s been happening in recent months, and that it’s what has driven the tirades against peak oil that we’ve all seen splashed over the media.

With that in mind, I’d like to glance over at a considerably more useful artifact of the current stage of the peak oil debate. Feasta has just released a study by David Korowicz on the ways that a financial crash could kickstart a more general economic implosion by gutting the fiscal gimmickry that keeps international trade running {3}.  It’s a thoughtful analysis, and it takes the time to make its assumptions explicit, which is useful; in the very few places where it runs off the rails, it’s fairly easy to glance back to the presuppositions governing the study and figure out where the problem lies.

Korowicz argues, if I may oversimplify his careful prose, that the current global financial system is a tottering mess that could come apart at the seams in no time flat, and it’s under stress already from a variety of factors, including peak oil.  If and when it comes apart,  he suggests, the entire structure of letters of credit and currency flows that supports global trade in little luxuries like enough food to eat could quite readily come apart also, producing a fiscal cardiac arrest that could shatter supply chains and bring most nations’ economies to a screeching halt in a matter of days or weeks.

Is this a plausible scenario? It’s considerably more than that, for a close equivalent happened in late 1932 and early 1933 in the United States.  A banking system that had been fatally wounded by the 1929 stock market crash and its aftermath had been propped up temporarily by federal money – they called it the Reconstruction Finance Corporation then; that’s spelled “TARP” this time around – but was still loaded to the breaking point with huge amounts of worthless debt and unprepared for ongoing economic contraction.  Then a new round of economic crisis triggered by events in Europe – no, I’m not making up any of this; look it up – pushed the US banking system over the edge; as banks folded one after another, the basic trust that makes a credit-based economy function evaporated; nobody could be sure if the bank that received their deposits or their loans would still be there the next day, bank runs followed, and the whole economy shuddered to a halt. Paychecks could not be cashed, businesses could not pay their suppliers or get paid for their products, and many of the negative consequences Korowicz sketches out duly happened.

Could that happen again, on a global scale? You bet. It’s the sequel, though, that didn’t get into Korowicz’ analysis. Faced with the imminent reality of national collapse, the US government did not sit on its hands, which is what those with the capacity to do something are always required to do in fast collapse theories. Instead, it temporarily nationalized the entire American banking system, declared that all assets held by the banks were owned by the government until further notice, made private ownership of gold by US citizens illegal, and ordered every scrap of gold in the country much bigger than a wedding ring sold to the government at a fixed, below-market price, with stiff legal penalties for anybody who tried to hang onto their gold stash. (I’m not making up any of this, either.  Look it up.) Flush with seized bank assets and confiscated gold, the government poured money into the nationalized banks, which could then meet every demand for funds, stopping the panic in its tracks. Once stability returned, the banks returned to private ownership and got their assets back, though gold remained a government monopoly for decades longer.

This sort of drastic measure is far from rare in economic history. Germany in the 1920s put paid to its era of hyperinflation by issuing a new currency, the rentenmark, which was backed by taking out one big mortgage on every single piece of real property in the country. Other countries have done things even more extreme.  A nation facing collapse, it bears remembering, has plenty of options, and it also has the means, motive, and opportunity to use them.

It’s only fair to point out that this sort of drastic response is something that the Feasta study specifically excludes. One of Korowicz’ basic assumptions, stated as such in his study, is that governments will respond to the crisis by choosing the minimal option they think will solve the immediate problem. It’s a reasonable assumption, right up to the point that national survival is at stake, but at that point history shows in no uncertain terms that the assumption goes right out the window.  Nation-states are good at surviving – that’s why they’ve become the standard form of human political organization in the viciously Darwinian environment of modern history – and it’s hard to think of anything a nation-state won’t do if it thinks its survival is threatened.

That said, Korowicz’ study points to one very plausible way that the next major round of crisis could slam into the industrial world. The fact that the nations affected by it could kluge together responses to it, slap the equivalent of defibrillator paddles onto their prostrate economies, and get a heartbeat again for the time being doesn’t change the fact that a financial collapse followed by even a partial supply chain breakdown would be a massive crisis, the sort of thing that could well plunge hundreds of millions of people into permanent poverty and push the global economy further down a long ragged decline that will be much less amenable to drastic responses.  We’re in agreement, in effect, that the patient is terminally ill; the question is simply whether first aid measures available to the paramedics on site can get his heart beating again, so he can drag out the dying process for a while longer.

Of course this is not the way the Feasta study is being discussed over much of the peak oil blogosphere. The fascination with sudden collapse – call it the Seneca cliff if you must, though it’s only fair to note that Seneca was talking about morality rather than the survival of civilization, and the civilization to which he himself belonged took centuries to decline and fall – is to the peak oil scene exactly what the fixation on Bakken shale oil and “effectively infinite” natural gas is to the collective imagination of industrial society as a whole: a means of denial.  It’s just one more way of pretending that we and our grandchildren’s grandchildren don’t have to endure the long bitter centuries of decline and fall that are waiting for us – a future that, let’s face it, is considerably more frightening than a sudden collapse. Claiming that it’ll all be over in a flash is not that much different, all things considered, from claiming that it won’t happen at all.

Wry reflections about evil overlords aside, I suspect we’ve got a ways still to go before the various modes of denial finish working their way through the collective imagination of our time.  The pundits and corporate flacks who have, for all practical purposes, gone barking mad about the world’s energy supply – I really don’t think any less forceful phrasing reflects the nature of these strident claims that scraping the bottom of the barrel, via fracking or otherwise, ought to be treated as proof that the barrel’s still full – are by and large associated with the two economic sectors, finance and petroleum, that are going to be clobbered first and hardest as the reality of peak oil sets in. The elephant’s in their living rooms; that’s why their shrill denials that elephants exist can be heard so clearly all through the neighborhood.  As the elephant roams a little more widely, I suspect that the same frantic tone will travel with it, until finally we find ourselves on the far side of denial and the next phase starts.

That phase, for those who haven’t kept track, is anger. It’s once that stage arrives in force that the explosion will follow.





End of the World of the Week #31




There are times, when the small hours of the morning arrive and I’m still awake and pondering, when I wonder about some of the great and insoluble questions of our time. One of these is why people listen when academics predict the future. It’s a common habit of professional scholars to do so, and the media and the public both lap it up, despite the awkward fact that almost all of those predictions turn out to be embarrassingly wrong.

One of the classic examples was the prophecy, widely made in the middle decades of the twentieth century and even more widely believed, that the great social crisis of the decades immediately ahead was going to be the end of work. Serious articles in serious periodicals and cocktail-party chitchat alike insisted that as automation took over, robot labor would inevitably replace human beings, first on the assembly line, then across the spectrum of employment, until the vast majority of people across the industrial world would no longer be needed in the labor force.

The mainstream liberal approach (in those days, remember, liberals were the mainstream) was to speculate about the promise and peril of a new age of limitless leisure, in which most people lived on a nationally guaranteed income and only artists, intellectuals, and executives had anything even close to a job. There was a great deal of very earnest talk about helping the poor, who allegedly couldn’t figure out what to do with spare time on their own, to fill their hours with suitably improving leisure activities. Meanwhile radicals insisted that once the new automated factories were in place, the ruling elite would simply exterminate the unnecessary population en masse. For many people in the 1960s radical scene, that was the most likely way the world – or at least their world – was supposed to end.

It’s indicative of the time that nobody questioned the assumption that the fantastic amount of energy needed for all those robot factories would be forthcoming, and nobody questioned that within a few years there would be, say, robots sophisticated enough to make your bed and cook your dinner. Both of those assumptions, and a great many more of the common beliefs of that time, turned out to be hopelessly wrong – and so, in turn, will plenty of the unquestioned presuppositions of our own time.

— 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.


{1} http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-18828714

{2} http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5ba1OKY7Xc

{3} http://www.feasta.org/2012/06/17/trade-off-financial-system-supply-chain-cross-contagion-a-study-in-global-systemic-collapse/

{4} http://www.vivaeditions.com/book_page.php?book_id=25

{5} http://www.aoda.org/

{6} http://starsreach.blogspot.com/


Unlearn, Rewild

by Dmitry Orlov

Club Orlov (July 17 2012)


One of the least useful words in the English language is the word “wilderness”. I grew up wandering the woods, and, to me, where the road and the trail end and the animal (and human) paths begin is a point of fundamental transition: beyond this point lies something else – an older, perfectly ordinary, normal way of being, in which we are just another animal among many others. (An even more atrocious term is “unimproved land” – which is what developers call land that they haven’t had a chance to bulldoze yet; “undestroyed land” seems more like it.) Perhaps a more reasonable perspective is to not call “wilderness” anything – it’s just another piece of the planet – and instead find a word that applies to its opposite: human blight, perhaps? Human infestation? You get my point.

So, how is life in the human blight zone working out for you? Isn’t the “civilized” living arrangement starting to seem a bit problematic? The corn crop (which is where Americans get most of their calories) is in the process of getting torched by a record heat wave, caused by global warming, in turn caused by burning fossil fuels which are a key element of life in the human blight zone. Corn prices are up over forty percent. These are the only terms in which we can perceive the phenomenon of crop failure; we can’t see, touch, smell or taste the corn, it has been reduced to just a statistic. And when there isn’t enough of it, you too will be reduced to just a statistic. How do you like the sound of that?

A lot of people don’t like that at all, and react, strangely enough, by using the word “unsustainable”. You see, everything would be fine if we made it sustainable, by recycling or putting up solar panels or driving electric cars or what have you. We need to transition to a sustainable future, and for that we need a transition plan. We’ve been following the wrong plan, you see – the plan to exterminate all life on earth – but with a new plan, one that leaves out the bit about the extermination, all that would change, right? Why doesn’t it occur to anyone that the human industrial monoculture is, if anything, a little too sustainable? It may well sustain itself right up to the point where it kills everyone. A bit less sustainability might be a wise choice at this point. Then small groups of feral humans (and lots of other animals) could thrive indefinitely amid the ruins; maybe even grow a little corn here and there.

There are entire shelves of books full of talk about “preparation”, “survival”, “sustainability” and so forth. Just about all of them avoid the real issue. And so I was very happy to come across one that doesn’t: Unlearn, Rewild by Miles Olson {*}, which is just going to press as I write this. Miles is not a theorist but a practitioner: he and his group of friends have been living off the land as squatters for many years. He doesn’t mince words: we “civilized” humans are living in a “human monoculture” prison; we have fallen into a technology trap.

{*} http://newsociety.com/Books/U/Unlearn-Rewild

How can you get out of this trap? Miles does not mince words: escape is illegal. If you want to escape, you have to break the law. “As soon as you begin to act outside the system, you are breaking its rules … Red handcuffs or blue handcuffs. Anything too far outside this culture’s mandate is not accepted; non-participation is not a legitimate option … Really, if we are all forced to work as part of a death machine, with no other viable alternative, where is the possibility for a sustainable future? The answer is obvious: in breaking the rules. Or, to put it more accurately, breaking the ridiculously insane rules”. [page 48] Need an example of “ridiculously insane rules”? “It is illegal to salvage roadkill in many places, so learn your local laws and act appropriately. Whether that means following them is up to you.” [page 107]

Does this mean that Miles is one of those easily dismissed idealistic back-to-the-land types? Judge for yourself:



If everyone disenchanted with this culture decided to wander off into the lonesome wilderness, it would have absolutely no effect on its workings. The back-to-the-land communities of the ’60s and ’70s may provide an illustration of this: a movement that was solid and strong in urban centers scattered into the countryside and gently faded away in dysfunctional utopian communities.

I think the most strategic place to be is on the fringes of this culture, in rural areas and at the edges of cities and towns. There one can interact with both civilization and wildness, dancing back and forth between both, feeding off the mass human energy and non-human energy. For those who feel called, there is important work to be done in the cities and in the wild blue yonder.

What we need is to build autonomous spaces, to create havens where the tools and skills we are going to need can be developed, and this can happen anywhere. Actually, it needs to be happening everywhere.



With that out of the way, Miles moves on to tools and skills, and there are pages and pages of them. What’s covered is comprehensive, almost universally useful and is rarely presented as clearly and memorably. Unlearning plays a big part: the first world standards on which the surrounding culture insists need to go by the wayside. A diet of animal protein and saturated animal fat is good for you; a diet of soya, wheat and corn cause physical and mental difficulties. Veganism is disregarded as a viable alternative because it relies on industrial agriculture. “There is no guilt-free food option for us (except for maybe bankers, politicians and the like, if you’re into that) and there shouldn’t be”. [page 99] Meat does not need to be refrigerated (which is good news, since there won’t be refrigeration). It can cure at room temperature (making it taste better) and can be smoked to preserve it longer. Maggots taste like what they’ve been eating; lots of cultures eat maggots (and so will this one once people get hungry enough). Many types of vegetables can be preserved by allowing them to ferment in their own juices with a bit of salt.

There are chapters on medicinal plants, on trapping (eating meat does not require firearms), on tanning hides and on dressing animal carcases. There is a chapter on non-industrial birth control. There is even a chapter on blending in and going undetected (basic prescription: act white; in this culture non-white people get locked up and exterminated). Amazing bits of information are scattered throughout: need a non-industrial substitute for Viagra? – try deer testicles; they taste like hot dogs. If there is one chapter missing, it’s the one on gathering food in the intertidal zone, which is dead easy and provides good nutrition. Mussels and dulse taste great and are easy to catch. This is probably because on Vancouver Island where Miles lives the coast is privately owned, densely populated and mostly off-limits. Still, I found it quite possible to go and gather at low tide (provided you dress like a tourist and wave and smile and generally act white). There also isn’t enough mention of wild mushrooms.

In all, I think this is a very good book to keep around. I don’t have a lot of room for books (or anything else, for that matter) and I am constantly paring down my library by giving books away, but I think that this one will be a keeper. By the way, the fiddlehead on the cover (not mentioned in the text, so I will mention it here) is edible too, sauteed, stir fried or pickled. Enjoy.


The Higgs Boson and the Steady State Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (July 22 2012)

What does the Higgs boson have to do with the establishment of a sustainable economy? The discovery of this subatomic particle required a Herculean effort, involving billions of dollars, over 1,000 physicists, and thousands of craftsmen to construct and operate an almost incomprehensibly complex machine – the Large Hadron Collider (“LHC”). The same kind of diligent, prodigious effort is needed to construct and operate a new economic system for all nations of the world.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing (2012), described the effort on the Higgs boson in ebullient terms:

… a triumph of technical and computational wizardry of unprecedented magnitude …

… cathedrals and colliders are both works of incomparable grandeur that celebrate the beauty of being alive …

… the discovery will change our view of ourselves and our place in the universe. Surely that is the hallmark of great music, great literature, great art … and great science.

Amid such extraordinary hype, it’s worth asking what we have to show for finding the so-called God particle? Will this momentous discovery help solve any crucial economic, social, environmental, or political problems besetting societies today and even threatening the livability of the planet? Will we possess the “key to the universe” and still wreck the planet we depend on?

If we can build the LHC, there’s hope for the Steady State Economy (“SSE”).

The most urgent task for humanity is the focus of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy: a transformation of the existing world economy. Today’s global economy rewards the depletion of natural resources, promotes overuse of fossil fuels, drives huge numbers of species to extinction, and turns a blind eye on the destruction of the very ecosystems that make life possible.

The transformation required in this emergency situation was described by economist Kenneth Boulding roughly half a century ago – the same period when physicists were formulating hypotheses about mystery particles. The essential change, Boulding said, was a move from “cowboy economics” (the unsustainable economics of continuous growth and resource overexploitation) to “spaceship economics” (the sustainable economics of the steady state).

Scientists specializing in ecosystem health warn that Earth is like a patient in the emergency room needing CPR – conservation, preservation, and restoration. The latest climate science reveals alarming physical changes to the planet – changes that are even more disturbing than the warnings issued in the big 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Here are a few such changes:

* The oceans are warming fifty percent faster than predicted;

* Greenhouse gas emissions are tracking the worst-case scenario;

* Oceans are acidifying at the fastest rate in 300 million years;

* Sea levels are projected to be over three times as high, and the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet would raise ocean levels twenty feet;

* The earth is on track for an average warming of seven degrees centigrade by 2100 – enough to produce massive agricultural failures.

We need a Herculean effort on both economic and ecological fronts to deal with climate destabilization. How many ecological economists are at work on a redesign of the global economy? What about the paucity of scientists who study the variety of life and the functioning of ecosystems? We do not know if there are ten million species on Earth or fifty million.

In contrast, consider the stupendous volume of data being gathered by the supercollider. Dr Krauss reports that this collider generates more data every second than the information in all the world’s libraries. The physicists got the billions they needed, but only a little progress has been made in developing spaceship economics. In fact, mainstream economics is reinforcing both the cowboy and casino thinking that is gripping most economies on Earth.

Physicists did not face a slick disinformation campaign funded by oil companies. Surely the job of rescuing our planet from an untimely demise should rank high in the funding priorities. Lester Brown estimates that $200 billion a year – less than a fifth of the world’s defense department budgets – is needed to shift to a clean-energy economy and do the CPR that planet Earth desperately needs.