Siberian Caves Reveal Advancing Permafrost Thaw

Melting of significant portions of Arctic permafrost could accelerate climate change into a catastrophe

by David Biello

Scientific American (February 21 2013)

Permafrost is not so permanent. Across the Arctic, swathes of once-frozen-solid ground have begun to thaw. If the records preserved in Siberian caves are accurate, much more of the region could melt if temperatures continue to warm.

Geoscientist Anton Vaks of the University of Oxford led an international team of experts – including the Arabica Caving Club in Irkutsk – in sampling the spindly cave growths known as stalagmites and stalactites across Siberia and down into the Gobi Desert of China. Taking samples of such speleothems from six caves, the researchers then reconstructed the last roughly 500,000 years of climate via the decay of radioactive particles in the stone. When the ground is frozen above a cave no water seeps into it, making such formations “relicts from warmer periods before permafrost formed”, the researchers wrote in a study published online in Science on 21 February.

The details of the study reveal that conditions were warm enough even in Siberia for these mineral deposits to form roughly 400,000 years ago, when the global average temperature was 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than present. It also suggests that there was no permafrost in the Lena River region at that time, because enough water seeped into the northernmost cave to enable roughly eight centimeters of growth in the formations.

That was, in fact, the last time the formations in the Ledyanaya Lenskaya Cave grew, although other caves further south showed multiple periods of growth coinciding with other warmer periods. “That boundary area of continuous permafrost starts to degrade when the mean global temperature is 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than present”, Vaks explains. “Such a warming is a threshold after which continuous permafrost zone starts to be vulnerable to global warming”.

Since Vaks’s present is the “preindustrial late Holocene”, that means the planet is already more than halfway there, having experienced 0.8 degree Celsius warming to date. Such a thaw is no small matter, given that permafrost covers nearly a quarter of the land in the Northern Hemisphere and holds roughly 1,700 gigatonnes of carbon – or roughly twice as much carbon as is currently trapping heat in the atmosphere. Much of that carbon would end up in the atmosphere if the permafrost was to thaw further.

That may not have occurred during the warm period 400,000 years ago, known as Marine Isotope Stage 11 to scientists, which featured elements such as boreal forest on Greenland and higher sea levels. “The thawing was probably very brief because the layer deposited in the northernmost cave stalactite was relatively thin”, Vaks says – too thin in fact to determine how long the warm period lasted. “We don’t see any extraordinary increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide or methane during MIS-11”. And the Gobi Desert might benefit, enjoying wetter conditions in the future if the record in these caves is accurate.

It’s not clear how far north such thawing might extend if global average temperatures continue to warm until they match those from long ago. “Now we are looking for caves with speleothems in northern Siberia to answer this question”, Vaks notes, adding that the northernmost cave is already much warmer than in the late 18th century based on historical reports. Further research could be done by taking sediment cores from Arctic river deltas or lakes, though this remains an epic task given the vastness and remoteness of the region. But, already, it is clear that global climates not much warmer than present are enough to thaw even more permafrost – as far north as sixty degrees latitude.

“The potential impact of these results extends to global policy: these results indicate the potential release of large amounts of carbon from thawed permafrost even if we attain the two degree Celsius warming target under negotiation”, says Kevin Schaefer, a scientist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, who has also studied permafrost but was not involved in this, in his words, “great science” effort. “Permafrost thaws slowly and the carbon will be released into the atmosphere over two to three centuries”.

Already, such thawing Arctic ice – whether underground or at sea – has further opened up the territory to exploration for resources, particularly oil. At the same time, the big thaw will make getting the oil out more expensive – billions of dollars in infrastructure investments in pipelines, roads and the like will be damaged as the ground shifts beneath them.


Scientific American is a trademark of Scientific American, Incorporated, used with permission

(c) 2013 Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.

The premises and purposes of American exceptionalism

That the US is objectively “the greatest country ever to exist” is as irrational as it is destructive, yet it maintains the status of orthodoxy

by Glenn Greenwald

The Guardian (February 18 2013)

Last week, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon, and the US – the country with the world’s largest stockpile of that weapon and the only one in history to use it – led the condemnation (US allies with large nuclear stockpiles, such as Britain and Israel, vocally joined in). Responding to unnamed commentators who apparently noted this contradiction, National Review’s Charles Cooke voiced these two assertions:

I never understand the moral equivalence on this. We can have nuclear weapons because we’re right. They can’t because they’re wrong.

He followed that with this:

Why should we condemn North Korea’s test? Because they’re a totalitarian nightmare state and we’re the greatest country in world history.

Nobody can reasonably dispute that North Korea is governed by a monstrous regime and that it would be better if they lacked a nuclear weapons capability. That isn’t what interests me about this. What interests me here is that highlighted claim: that the US “is the greatest country in world history”, and therefore is entitled to do that which other countries are not.

This declaration always genuinely fascinates me. Note how it’s insufficient to claim the mere mantle of Greatest Country on the Planet. It’s way beyond that: the Greatest Country Ever to Exist in All of Human History (why not The Greatest Ever in All of the Solar Systems). The very notion that this distinction could be objectively or even meaningfully measured is absurd. But the desire to believe it is so strong, the need to proclaim one’s own unprecedented superiority so compelling, that it’s hardly controversial to say it despite how nonsensical it is. The opposite is true: it has been vested with the status of orthodoxy.

What I’m always so curious about is the thought process behind this formulation. Depending on how you count, there are 179 countries on the planet. The probability that you will happen to be born into The Objectively Greatest One, to the extent there is such a thing, is less than one per cent. As the US accounts for roughly five per cent of the world’s population, the probability that you will be born into it is 1/20. Those are fairly long odds for the happenstance of being born into the Greatest Country on Earth.

But if you extend the claim to the Greatest Country that Has Ever Existed in All of Human History, then the probability is minute: that you will happen to be born not only into the greatest country on earth, but will be born at the precise historical time when the greatest of all the countries ever to exist is thriving. It’s similar to winning the lottery: something so mathematically improbable that while our intense desire to believe it may lead us on an emotional level wildly to overestimate its likelihood, our rational faculties should tell us that it is unlikely in the extreme and therefore to doubt seriously that it will happen.

Do people who wave the Greatest Country in All of Human History flag engage that thought process at all? I’m asking this genuinely. Given the sheer improbability that it is true, do they search for more likely explanations for why they believe this?

In particular, given that human beings’ perceptions are shaped by the assumptions of their culture and thus have a natural inclination to view their own culture as superior, isn’t it infinitely more likely that people view their society as objectively superior because they’re inculcated from birth in all sorts of overt and subtle ways to believe this rather than because it’s objectively true? It’s akin to those who believe in their own great luck that they just happened to be born into the single religion that is the One True One rather than suspecting that they believe this because they were taught to from birth.

At the very least, the tendency of the human brain to view the world from a self-centered perspective should render suspect any beliefs that affirm the objective superiority of oneself and one’s own group, tribe, nation, et cetera. The “truths” we’re taught to believe from birth – whether nationalistic, religious, or cultural – should be the ones treated with the greatest skepticism if we continue to embrace them in adulthood, precisely because the probability is so great that we’ve embraced them because we were trained to, or because our subjective influences led us to them, and not because we’ve rationally assessed them to be true (or, as in the case of the British Cooke, what we were taught to believe about western nations closely aligned to our own).

That doesn’t mean that what we’re taught to believe from childhood is wrong or should be presumed erroneous. We may get lucky and be trained from the start to believe what is actually true. That’s possible. But we should at least regard those precepts with great suspicion, to subject them to particularly rigorous scrutiny, especially when it comes to those that teach us to believe in our own objective superiority or that of the group to which we belong. So potent is the subjective prism, especially when it’s implanted in childhood, that I’m always astounded at some people’s certainty of their own objective superiority (“the greatest country in world history”).

It’s certainly true that Americans are justifiably proud of certain nationalistic attributes: class mobility, ethnic diversity, religious freedom, large immigrant populations, life-improving technological discoveries, a commitment to some basic liberties such as free speech and press, historical progress in correcting some of its worst crimes. But all of those virtues are found in equal if not, at this point, greater quantity in numerous other countries. Add to that mix America’s shameful attributes – its historic crimes of land theft, genocide, slavery and racism, its sprawling penal state, the company it keeps on certain human rights abuses, the aggressive attack on Iraq, the creation of a worldwide torture regime, its pervasive support for the world’s worst tyrannies – and it becomes not just untenable, but laughable, to lavish it with that title.

This is more than just an intellectual exercise. This belief in America’s unparalleled greatness has immense impact. It is not hyperbole to say that the sentiment expressed by Cooke is the overarching belief system of the US political and media class, the primary premise shaping political discourse. Politicians of all types routinely recite the same claim, and Cooke’s tweet was quickly re-tweeted by a variety of commentators and self-proclaimed foreign policy experts from across the spectrum.

Note that Cooke did not merely declare America’s superiority, but rather used it to affirm a principle: as a result of its objective superiority, the US has the right to do things that other nations do not. This self-affirming belief – I can do X because I’m Good and you are barred from X because you are Bad – is the universally invoked justification for all aggression. It’s the crux of hypocrisy. And most significantly of all, it is the violent enemy of law: the idea that everyone is bound by the same set of rules and restraints.

This eagerness to declare oneself exempt from the rules to which others are bound, on the grounds of one’s own objective superiority, is always the animating sentiment behind nationalistic criminality. Here’s what Orwell said about that in “Notes on Nationalism” (Polemic, October 1945):

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side … The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.

Preserving this warped morality, this nationalistic prerogative, is, far and away, the primary objective of America’s foreign policy community, composed of its political offices, media outlets, and (especially) think tanks. What Cooke expressed here – that the US, due to its objective superiority, is not bound by the same rules as others – is the most cherished and aggressively guarded principle in that circle. Conversely, the notion that the US should be bound by the same rules as everyone else is the most scorned and marginalized.

Last week, the Princeton professor Cornel West denounced Presidents Nixon, Bush and Obama as “war criminals”, saying that “they have killed innocent people in the name of the struggle for freedom, but they’re suspending the law, very much like Wall Street criminals”. West specifically cited Obama’s covert drone wars and killing of innocent people, including children. What West was doing there was rather straightforward: applying the same legal and moral rules to US aggression that he has applied to other countries and which the US applies to non-friendly, disobedient regimes.

In other words, West did exactly that which is most scorned and taboo in DC policy circles. And thus he had to be attacked, belittled and dismissed as irrelevant. Andrew Exum, the Afghanistan War advocate and Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security, eagerly volunteered for the task:

As national security professionals, its always wise to pause and think to yourself, “Okay, wait … would Cornel West approve of this?”

Note that there’s no effort to engage Professor West’s arguments. It’s pure ad hominem (in the classic sense of the logical fallacy): “who is “Cornell [sic] West” to think that anything he says should be even listened to by “national security professionals”? It’s a declaration of exclusion: West is not a member in good standing of DC’s Foreign Policy Community, and therefore his views can and should be ignored as Unserious and inconsequential.

Leave aside the inane honorific of “national security professional” (is there a licensing agency for that?). Leave aside the noxious and pompous view that the views of non-national-security-professionals – whatever that means – should be ignored when it comes to militarism, US foreign policy and war crimes. And also leave aside the fact that the vast majority of so-called “national security professionals” have been disastrously wrong about virtually everything of significance over the last decade at least, including when most of them used their platforms and influence not only to persuade others to support the greatest crime of our generation – the aggressive attack on Iraq – but also to scorn war opponents as too Unserious to merit attention. As Samantha Power put it in 2007:

It was Washington’s conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of US foreign policy. The rush to invade Iraq was a position advocated by not only the Bush Administration, but also by editorial pages, the foreign policy establishment of both parties, and majorities in both houses of Congress.

Given that history, if one wants to employ ad hominems: one should be listened to more, not less, if one is denied the title of “national security professional”.

The key point is what constitutes West’s transgression. His real crime is that he tacitly assumed that the US should be subjected to the same rules and constraints as all other nations in the world, that he rejected the notion that America has the right to do what others nations may not. And this is the premise – that there are any legal or moral constraints on the US’s right to use force in the world – that is the prime taboo thought in the circles of DC Seriousness. That’s why West, the Princeton professor, got mocked as someone too silly to pay attention to: because he rejected that most cherished American license that is grounded in the self-loving exceptionalism so purely distilled by Cooke.

West made a moral and legal argument, and US “national security professionals” simply do not recognize morality or legality when it comes to US aggression. That’s why our foreign policy discourse so rarely includes any discussion of those considerations. A US president can be a “war criminal” only if legal and moral rules apply to his actions on equal terms as all other world leaders, and that is precisely the idea that is completely anathema to everything “national security professionals” believe (it also happens to be the central principle the Nuremberg Tribunal sought to affirm: “while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment”).

US foreign policy analysts are permitted to question the tactics of the US government and military (will bombing these places succeed in the goals?). They are permitted to argue that certain policies will not advance American interests (drones may be ineffective in stopping Terrorism). But what they are absolutely barred from doing – upon pain of being expelled from the circles of Seriousness – is to argue that there are any legal or moral rules that restrict US aggression, and especially to argue that the US is bound by the same set of rules which it seeks to impose on others (recall the intense attacks on Howard Dean, led by John Kerry, when Dean suggested in 2003 that the US should support a system of universally applied rules because “we won’t always have the strongest military”: the very idea that the US should think of itself as subject to the same rules as the rest of the world is pure heresy).

In 2009, Les Gelb – the former Pentagon and State Department official and Chairman Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations: the ultimate “national security professional” – wrote an extraordinary essay in the journal Democracy explaining why he and so many others in his circle supported the attack on Iraq. This is what he blamed it on:

unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility.

That someone like Les Gelb says that “national security professionals” have career incentives to support US wars “to retain political and professional credibility” is amazing, yet clearly true. When I interviewed Gelb in 2010 regarding that quote, he elaborated that DC foreign policy experts – “national security professionals” – know that they can retain relevance in and access to key government circles only if they affirm the unfettered right of the US to use force whenever and however it wants. They can question tactics, but never the supreme prerogative of the US, the unchallengeable truth of American exceptionalism.

In sum, think tank “scholars” don’t get invited to important meetings by “national security professionals” in DC if they point out that the US is committing war crimes and that the US president is a war criminal. They don’t get invited to those meetings if they argue that the US should be bound by the same rules and laws it imposes on others when it comes to the use of force. They don’t get invited if they ask US political officials to imagine how they would react if some other country were routinely bombing US soil with drones and cruise missiles and assassinating whatever Americans they wanted to in secret and without trial. As the reaction to Cornel West shows, making those arguments triggers nothing but ridicule and exclusion.

One gets invited to those meetings only if one blindly affirms the right of the US to do whatever it wants, and then devotes oneself to the pragmatic question of how that unfettered license can best be exploited to promote national interests. The culture of DC think tanks, “international relations” professionals, and foreign policy commenters breeds allegiance to these American prerogatives and US power centers – incentivizes reflexive defenses of US government actions – because, as Gelb says, that is the only way to advance one’s careerist goals as a “national security professional”. If you see a twenty-something aspiring “foreign policy expert” or “international relations professional” in DC, what you’ll view, with some rare exceptions, is a mindlessly loyal defender of US force and prerogatives. It’s what that culture, by design, breeds and demands.

In that crowd, Cooke’s tweets aren’t the slightest bit controversial. They’re axioms, from which all valid conclusions flow.

This belief in the unfettered legal and moral right of the US to use force anywhere in the world for any reason it wants is sustained only by this belief in objective US superiority, this myth of American exceptionalism. And the results are exactly what one would expect from an approach grounded in a belief system so patently irrational.



Cooke has a mostly thoughtful reply {1}. I don’t have time this afternoon to respond in detail, so I’ll leave it to readers to decide if you think he’s offered a satisfactory explanation for what he thinks. Just two notes: (1) I explicitly said I was not contesting the view that North Korea’s government is totalitarian and horrific, and (2) I wasn’t suggesting that Cooke himself believes that the US has the right to use force anywhere it wants and for whatever reasons, only that the premise of American exceptionalism he endorses is the necessary ingredient for that belief and is typically the animating principle behind it. I quoted Cooke because, as he himself suggests, what he wrote is a pure distillation of a widely held view in US political discourse.

Related to all of this, Harvard professor Stephen Walt (is he a national security professional or someone to whom such professionals should listen?) wrote a post on this topic in late, 2011 entitled “The Myth of American Exceptionalism” (see, in particular, the numerous examples he cites of people of influence espousing what Cooke wrote here).


Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security issues for the Guardian. A former constitutional lawyer, he was until 2012 a contributing writer at Salon. He is the author of How Would a Patriot Act? (2006), a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power; A Tragic Legacy (2007), which examines the Bush legacy; and With Liberty and Justice For Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful (2011).

(c) 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.



The original version of this article, at the URL below, contains several other links to further information not included here.

The Prometheus Trap – Part Seven

Gratitude expressed by Japan’s commander in chief

by Hidefumi Nogami / Staff Writer

The Asahi Shimbun (February 11 2013)

Editor’s note: This is the seventh part of a series that has run in the past under the overall title of The Prometheus Trap. This series deals with the different responses between Japan and the United States in dealing with the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011 following the Great East Japan Earthquake. The series will appear on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.


* * *


By the afternoon of March 15 2011, the Defense Ministry had prepared a rough plan to cool the overheating reactors at the Fukushima Number One nuclear power plant by using Self-Defense Forces helicopters for water air drops.

Around the same time, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was in his office on the fifth floor of the Prime Minister’s office agonizing over a decision he had to make shortly.

The prime minister is the SDF’s commander in chief. In the event of an invasion of Japan by a foreign country, there would be no hesitation in issuing an order to mobilize the SDF.

But what the nation was facing at the moment was a nuclear accident at home and the invisible threat of radiation from the crippled nuclear power plant. Kan was wondering what his decision should be.

In the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, Soviet soldiers were sent into the site to deal with the consequences in the face of life-threatening danger posed by high levels of radiation.

Kan was recalling what happened to these “liquidators”, or cleanup workers at the Chernobyl accident site. He was unsure whether he could issue an order to send SDF personnel into the Fukushima plant on an extremely dangerous mission.

Legally speaking, it is the responsibility of Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the Fukushima plant, to deal with the situation. But the fact is that Kan, as the prime minister, was the only person who could make the decision to mobilize the SDF to contain the rapidly developing nuclear crisis.

At 3:58 pm, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa came into Kan’s office, carrying a sheaf of documents describing a plan for SDF helicopters to spray water on the reactors.

“We have crafted a plan for spraying water on the reactors in the best possible way for preventing casualties (among the SDF personnel involved)”, Kitazawa said, presenting the documents to Kan. “What do you think?”

Kan repeatedly expressed his gratitude. “I really appreciate that. I really appreciate that.”

General Ryoichi Oriki, chief of staff of the SDF’s Joint Staff, the highest-ranking SDF officer, was accompanying Kitazawa to brief Kan on the plan. After explaining the operation to the prime minister, Oriki said, “Protecting the lives of people is our job, and we are ready to make all-out efforts (to carry out the mission) if we receive an order”.

“I really appreciate that”, Kan said again.

Oriki’s words were reassuring to Kan, who was to issue an unprecedented order to mobilize the SDF to deal with the nuclear disaster.

During the hours leading up to this meeting, Japanese Ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki called the integrated government-TEPCO headquarters, which was responding to the nuclear crisis, to report that US officials were urging the mobilization of the SDF to cope with the situation.

Immediately on the spot, Kan issued an order to the SDF to spray water to cool the reactors.

According to the plan, water would be sprayed on the Number Three reactor from the air and on the Number Four unit from the ground. There was the possibility that dumping water on the Number Four reactor from above could cause a hydrogen explosion. The operations were to be carried out on the following day, March 16.

Kan’s order was passed by Oriki through the chain of command to SDF troops chosen for the mission.

The Ground Self-Defense Force’s 1st Helicopter Brigade was assigned to the water-dumping operation.

The brigade is composed of some 700 troops and a fleet of more than thirty aircraft, including Boeing CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.

The unit had been carrying out airlifts to transport relief goods to areas hit by the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, operating from the GSDF’s Camp Kasuminome in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, which has the Kasuminome Air Field.

Lead plates and protective sheets to shield SDF personnel from radiation during the operations were brought to Kasuminome and other SDF camps.

Whispers about the impending operations at the disaster-stricken plant started circulating among SDF members.

“It seems we will be used for operations at the Number One nuclear plant”, some whispered. “We could die if we are sent to the plant”, others said.


* * *


The previous installments of this series are available at:







In a Time of Limits

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (February 20 2013)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

When the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville toured the newly founded American republic in the early years of the nineteenth century, he encountered plenty of things that left him scratching his head. The national obsession with making money, the atrocious food, and the weird way that high culture found its way into the most isolated backwoods settings – “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut which does not contain a few odd volumes of  Shakespeare” he wrote; “I remember reading the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin”, – all intrigued him, and found their way into the pages of his remarkable book Democracy in America (1835, 1840).

Still, one of the things de Tocqueville found most astonishing bears directly on the theme I’ve been developing over the last several weeks here on The Archdruid Report.  The Americans of his time, when they wanted to make something happen, didn’t march around with placards or write their legislators demanding that the government do it.  Instead, far more often than not, they simply put together a private association for the purpose, and did it themselves. De Tocqueville wrote:


Americans combine to give fetes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association. I have come across several types of association in America of which, I confess, I had not previously the slightest conception, and I have often admired the extreme skill they show in proposing a common object for the exertions of very many and in inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.


The types of associations de Tocqueville encountered used an assortment of ingenious legal structures borrowed, for the most part, from English common law.  Those of my readers who dislike the role of corporations in contemporary American life may be interested to know that the distant and much less toxic ancestor of today’s corporate structure was one of them. A corporation, back in those days, was not a privileged legal pseudo-person with more rights and fewer responsibilities than a human being.  It was simply a group of people who set out to accomplish some purpose, and got a charter from the state government allowing them to raise money for that purpose by selling shares of stock.  Most had single purposes – building a hospital, say, or a canal – and limited lifespans, defined either as a fixed number of years or until the purpose of the corporation was completed.

Making money was sometimes an object in such exercises, but by no means always. Members of a local religious community who wanted to build a new church, for example, would very often do that by organizing a corporation to raise money for the construction costs.  Each member would buy as many shares as he or she could afford, and fellow believers in neighboring towns who wanted to support the project might also buy shares to chip in.  When the church was finished, the corporation would be wound up, and thereafter a portion of the income from tithes and donations might be set apart to buy back the shares a few at a time; on the other hand, the members of the congregation might consider themselves well repaid when they filed into a new building on Sunday mornings. It was a remarkably effective means of local micro-finance, and it paid for a huge number of civic improvements and public amenities in the young republic.

Not all associations that directed their efforts toward the public good in this way were corporations, and I hope I may be allowed a personal reminiscence about one of the others.  I think most of my regular readers know that I’m a Freemason. Yes, I’m quite aware that this makes me an object of vilification across most of the further reaches of contemporary American political life; no, I don’t particularly care, though it tickles my sense of absurdity to be accused to my face now and then of being one of the evil space lizards David Icke rants about in his books. In the town where I live, the various Masonic bodies meet in a large and lovely century-old building – which was, by the way, constructed by the sort of building corporation described earlier in this essay – and share certain projects in common. This year, I serve as the secretary to one of those, the Masonic Endowment Fund. Half a century ago, it had a different and more revealing name:  the Masonic Relief Fund.

Here’s how it functioned back in the day. Donations from living members, bequests from dead ones, and a variety of fundraising activities kept the Fund supplied with money, which it invested, and the interest from those investments went to help Masonic brothers and their families who fell onto hard times.  The members of the Relief Board, who were appointed by each lodge or other Masonic body, investigated each case and then started writing checks.

Elderly brethren still recall the days when a long hard winter meant that the poorer families in town would run out of money for coal well before spring, and those who had a family member in the Masons could count on the truck from the local coal firm making a delivery anyway.  Groceries, visiting nurse services, school expenses, funeral costs – the Relief Fund covered all those and much more.  Everyone in the local Masonic scene supported the project to whatever extent their means allowed.  Partly that was because that’s what you do when you’re a Freemason, and partly it was because everyone knew that, however well off they were at the moment, some unexpected turn of events might leave them in a situation where they had to rely on the Fund for their own survival.

The Fund no longer buys truckloads of coal for poor Masonic families in the winter, and the reason for that is a microcosm of the impact of empire on American communities. In the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs of the 1960s, government welfare programs took the place of the Masonic Relief Fund and its many equivalents in the lives of the local poor.  Requests for help slowed and then stopped, and the Relief Board found itself sitting on an increasing pile of money that no one seemed to need any more. After much discussion, and by vote of the Masonic bodies that funded the Board, its name was changed to the Masonic Endowment Fund and its income was put to work paying for improvements on an aging Masonic building.

The same thing, often in much more drastic terms, happened to many other voluntary organizations that once occupied the roles currently more or less filled by government social welfare programs. In 1920, for example, something like 3500 different fraternal orders existed in the United States, and around fifty percent of the country’s adult population – counting both genders and all ethnic groups, by the way – belonged to at least one of them. Reasons for belonging ranged across the whole spectrum of human social phenomena, but there were hard pragmatic reasons to put in a petition for membership at your local lodge of the Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, or what have you:  at a time when employers generally didn’t provide sick pay and other benefits for employees, most fraternal orders did.

If you belonged to the Odd Fellows, for example, you went to lodge one evening a week and paid your weekly dues, which were generally around 25 cents – that is, about the equivalent of a $20 bill today. In exchange, if you became too sick to work, the lodge would give you sick pay, and if you died, the lodge would cover the costs of your funeral and guarantee that your family would be taken care of.  If, as often happened, the husband belonged to the Odd Fellows and the wife to the Rebekahs, the women’s branch of the same organization, the family had a double claim on the order’s help.

Here again, I can call on something more personal than the abstract facts that can be gotten from old history books. My paternal grandfather’s father was a city police officer in the wide-open port town of Aberdeen, Washington, and an Odd Fellow.  In 1920 he was shot to death in the line of duty, leaving a wife and thirteen children. The Aberdeen Odd Fellows lodge paid for his funeral and then took care of his family – his children until they reached adulthood, his widow for the rest of her life. It’s not an accident that my grandfather, when he was in his twenties, became a founding member of a community service organization, Active 20-30 International.

In 1920, Odd Fellowship was at the peak of its size and influence, and ranked as the largest fraternal organization in North America.  Today, it’s a faint and flickering shadow of its former self.  When welfare programs and employer-paid pensions came in, the core function of the Odd Fellows and a great many organizations like it went out by the same door.  So, in due time, did most of the organizations. We once had a thriving Odd Fellows lodge here in Cumberland; the building is still there, with the letters IOOF in mosaic work on the front step, but the lodge is long gone.

Now it’s only fair to point out that the shift from private relief funds to government welfare programs had certain definite advantages. The voluntary associations that handled relief in the pre-welfare era – fraternal orders such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows, religious bodies such as churches and synagogues, and the like – had limited resources, and usually conserved them by limiting their relief payments to their members, or to other narrowly defined populations.  To return to a point made earlier in these posts, the relief organizations of an earlier day had to treat their resources as a commons that could be destroyed by abuse, and so they put a variety of limits on access to those resources to make sure that the people who got help actually needed it, and weren’t simply trying to game the system.

The deep pockets of government in an era of national expansion made it possible, for a while, to ignore such factors.  The new social welfare programs could reach out to everyone who needed them, or at least to everyone whose claim to need them advanced the agenda of one political faction or another.  The resulting largesse was distributed in various amounts all over the class spectrum – welfare for the poor, a dizzying array of direct and indirect federal subsidies for the middle class, ample tax loopholes and corporate handouts to benefit the rich – and did a great deal to fund the lavish lifestyles Americans by and large enjoyed during their nation’s imperial zenith.

That’s the kind of thing a society can do when it can draw on half a billion years of stored sunlight to prop up its economy, not to mention a global empire that gives it privileged access to the energy, raw materials, and products of industry that a half a billion years of stored sunlight made possible. Whether or not it was a good idea isn’t a question I particularly want to discuss at this point. It’s far more important, it seems to me, to recognize that the welfare states of the late 20th century were the product of a vast but temporary abundance of energy and the products of energy; they did not exist before that glut of energy arrived, and it’s thus a safe bet that they won’t exist after the glut is gone.

I think it’s at least as safe a bet, mind you, that nobody in America will be willing to face that fact until long after the abundance of the recent past is a fading memory.  The last decade or so of bickering in Washington DC is more than adequate evidence of the way the winds are blowing. Republicans talk about jobs, Democrats talk about justice, but in both cases what’s going on is best described as a bare-knuckle brawl over which party’s voting blocs get to keep their accustomed access to the federal feeding trough. Choose any point on the convoluted political landscape of modern America, and the people at that position eagerly criticize those handouts that don’t benefit them, but scream like irate wildcats if anything threatens their own access to government largesse.

I suspect, for what it’s worth, that the last US government handouts to be paid out will be those that prop up the lifestyles of the American middle class: the financial aid that keeps middle class families from having to shoulder the whole cost of a college education for their children, the social security and medicare that keeps them from having to foot the whole bill for their old age and that of their parents, the galaxy of programs intended to make it easier for them to afford homeownership, and all the rest of it. Programs that benefit the middle class disproportionately already make up the largest share of US federal entitlement programs, dwarfing the two percent or so of the federal budget that goes to the poor, or the five percent or so that counts as corporate welfare, and that figure is a fair measure of the political clout the middle class can wield in defense of its privileges.

It would be pleasant to suppose, as the United States slides down the trajectory of imperial decline and the number of Americans in serious trouble increases, that middle class voters would recognize the severity of the situation and support, say, means tests on middle-class welfare programs, so that those who don’t actually need help can be asked to step aside in favor of those who do. I hope none of my readers plan on holding their breath and waiting for this to happen, though. Quite the contrary:  as economic contraction accelerates and energy and resource shortages bite harder, the fight around the feeding trough will just get worse. I doubt many of the combatants will take enough time from the struggle to notice that, in the long run, it’s a fight with no winners.

In the time of limits ahead of us, no country on earth will be able to afford a welfare state of the kind that was common in industrial societies over the last century or so. That’s one of the harsh realities of our predicament.  National economies powered by diffuse renewable energy sources, bound by strict ecological limits, and forced to cope with the cascading instabilities of a damaged planetary biosphere, simply won’t be able to produce the surplus wealth needed to make that a possibility. Methods of providing for urgent social needs that worked in the days before the economy of abundance are another matter, and for this reason it makes sense to suggest a revival of the old American custom of forming voluntary associations to fund and manage public amenities.

There are at least two important advantages to such a project, and both of them take the form of lessons that Americans once knew and are going to have to learn again in a hurry. The first is that a private association doesn’t have the luxury of pretending that it has limitless resources.  Currently some sixty percent of Americans receive more in the way of financial benefits from government than they pay in taxes.  Conservative pundits like to insist that this means the well-to-do are getting robbed by taxation, but the facts of the matter are considerably more troubling: the gap in question is being covered with borrowed money – which means, in an era of quantitative easing, that it’s being paid by printing money.  That’s a recipe for massive economic trouble in the short term. A private association, by contrast, can’t print its own money, and if its members vote themselves more benefits than the treasury can pay for, they will discover promptly enough why this isn’t a good idea.

That’s the first advantage. The second is closely related to it.  The benefit funds of the old fraternal orders and their equivalents across the spectrum of voluntary associations learned two crucial lessons very early on.  The first was that some people are solely interested in gaming the system for whatever they can get out of it, and are unwilling to contribute anything in return.  The second is that allowing such people to get their way, and drain the fund of its resources, is a fast road to failure. The standard response was to limit access to the benefit fund to those who had contributed to it, or the organization that sponsored it, at least to the extent of joining the organization and keeping current on their dues.

That’s why the Masonic Relief Fund here in Cumberland only bought coal for those poor families who had a family member in Freemasonry, and why so many of the comparable funds operated by other lodges, by churches, and by a range of other social institutions in the pre-welfare days had similar rules.  The reasoning involved in this custom is the same logic of the commons we’ve discussed several times already in this series of posts. A relief fund is a commons; like any other commons it can be destroyed if those who have access to it are allowed to abuse it for their own benefit; to prevent that from happening, limits on access to the commons are essential.

There were also organizations that existed to provide help to people other than their own members, and in fact most of the old lodges directed some part of their efforts to helping people in the community at large – as indeed most of them still do.  Here again, though, access to the limited resources that were available was controlled, so that those resources could be directed where, in the best judgment of the sponsoring organization, they would do the most good.  Nineteenth-century talk about “the deserving poor” – that is, those whose poverty was not primarily the result of their own choices and habits, and who thus might well be able to better their conditions given some initial help – is deeply offensive to many people in our present culture of entitlement, but it reflects a hard reality.

Whether the habit of throwing money at the poor en masse is a useful response to poverty or not, the fact remains that a post-imperial America on the downslope of the age of cheap energy won’t have the resources to maintain that habit even with the poor it’s already got, much less the vastly increased numbers of the newly poor we’ll have as what’s left of our economy winds down.  Those who worry about ending up destitute as that process unfolds need to be aware that they won’t be able to turn to the government for help, and those whose sense of compassion leads them to want to do something helpful for the poor might want to consider some less futile response than trying to pry loose government funds for that purpose.

In both cases, the proven approaches of a less extravagant time might be worth adopting, or at least considering. It’s fair to admit that the voluntary associations central to those approaches won’t be able to solve all the problems of a post-imperial society in a deindustrializing world, but then neither will anything else; they can, however, accomplish some good. In a time of limits, that may well be the best that can be done.

John Michael Greer is the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America {1} 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 {2}, 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.

And please consider putting a tip in the Archdruid’s tip jar. Many thanks!




North Korea: Preparing for War

by Jen Alic (February 21 2013)

The latest in the North Korea drama is the release of a video portraying US President Barack Obama and American troops going up in flames. But it’s not just cheap and cheesy rhetoric by a new leader who wants to be taken seriously: North Korea is preparing for a war because the US has been preparing for an offensive.

Earlier this month, we were regaled with a similar video, this time portraying a US city being attacked by North Korean missiles. Before that, in December, North Korea launched a satellite, and its official news agency declared a “Nationwide preparation for an all-out great war for national reunification”.

Earlier this week, satellite images indicated renewed activity at a North Korean nuclear site where a test was launched in early December. On 12 December, North Korea launched a long-range rocket putting a satellite into orbit. This is a major success for North Korea and few others have achieved it. (South Korea responded by successfully launching its own satellite into orbit for the first time in late January.)

The Obama administration’s stated policy on North Korea – the one for public consumption – is “strategic patience”, but there’s nothing patient about this policy. On the public platform, the media finds it amusing to jest about the careful and seemingly unserious US response to North Korean provocations. Behind the scenes, however, the US has been working up to an offensive since the death of Kim Jong-il a year ago – with Washington hedging its bets that the succession comes along with enough instability to open an window of opportunity for regime change.

Pyongyang’s activities since then have been those of a country on edge, and this is why:

* The first joint military exercises between the US and South Korea since the death of Kim Jong-il suddenly changed their nature, with new war games included pre-emptive artillery attacks on North Korea

* Another amphibious landing operation simulation took on vastly larger proportions following Kim Jong-il’s death (the sheer amount of equipment deployed was amazing: thirteen naval vessels, 52 armored vessels, forty fighter jets and 9,000 US troops).

* South Korean officials began talking of Kim Jong-il’s death as a prime opportunity to pursue a regime-change strategy .

* South Korea unveiled a new cruise missile that could launch a strike inside North Korea and is working fast to increase its full-battery range to strike anywhere inside North Korea.

* South Korea openly began discussing asymmetric warfare against North Korea.

* The US military’s Key Resolve Foal Eagle computerized war simulation games suddenly changed, too, simulating the deployment of 100,000 South Korean troops on North Korean territory following a regime change.

* Japan was brought on board, allowing the US to deploy a second advanced missile defense radar system on its territory and the two carried out unprecedented war games.

* It is also not lost on anyone that despite what on the surface appears to be the US’ complete lack of interest in a new South Korean naval base that is in the works, this base will essentially serve as an integrated missile defense system run by the US military and housing Aegis destroyers .

The bottom line here is that the US and South Korea have gone on the offensive, and this is prompting a flurry of activity by Pyongyang, which will now put even more effort into its nuclear program.

While it is perhaps more amusing to paint a portrait of Kim Jong-un as an eccentric attention-seeker, and while there is an element in Pyongyang’s actions that is about solidifying stability at home, what this is really about is North Korea’s belief that an invasion is imminent.

A move on North Korea would also be in line with the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific strategic shift, which has the US Navy bringing old forward bases back online across region, from Thailand and Vietnam to the Philippines and Australia.

A Presidential Decision That Could Change The World

The Strategic Importance of Keystone XL

by Michael T Klare

TomDispatch (February 10 2013)

Presidential decisions often turn out to be far less significant than imagined, but every now and then what a president decides actually determines how the world turns. Such is the case with the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if built, is slated to bring some of the “dirtiest”, carbon-rich oil on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the US Gulf Coast.  In the near future, President Obama is expected to give its construction a definitive thumbs up or thumbs down, and the decision he makes could prove far more important than anyone imagines.  It could determine the fate of the Canadian tar-sands industry and, with it, the future well-being of the planet.  If that sounds overly dramatic, let me explain.

Sometimes, what starts out as a minor skirmish can wind up determining the outcome of a war – and that seems to be the case when it comes to the mounting battle over the Keystone XL pipeline. If given the go-ahead by President Obama, it will daily carry more than 700,000 barrels of tar-sands oil to those Gulf Coast refineries, providing a desperately needed boost to the Canadian energy industry. If Obama says no, the Canadians (and their American backers) will encounter possibly insuperable difficulties in exporting their heavy crude oil, discouraging further investment and putting the industry’s future in doubt.

The battle over Keystone XL was initially joined in the summer of 2011, when environmental writer and climate activist Bill McKibben and, which he helped found, organized a series of non-violent anti-pipeline protests in front of the White House to highlight the links between tar sands production and the accelerating pace of climate change. At the same time, farmers and politicians in Nebraska, through which the pipeline is set to pass, expressed grave concern about its threat to that state’s crucial aquifers. After all, tar-sands crude is highly corrosive, and leaks are a notable risk.

In mid-January 2012, in response to those concerns, other worries about the pipeline, and perhaps a looming presidential campaign season, Obama postponed a decision on completing the controversial project.  (He, not Congress, has the final say, since it will cross an international boundary.)  Now, he must decide on a suggested new route that will, supposedly, take Keystone XL around those aquifers and so reduce the threat to Nebraska’s water supplies.

Ever since the president postponed the decision on whether to proceed, powerful forces in the energy industry and government have been mobilizing to press ever harder for its approval. Its supporters argue vociferously that the pipeline will bring jobs to America and enhance the nation’s “energy security” by lessening its reliance on Middle Eastern oil suppliers. Their true aim, however, is far simpler: to save the tar-sands industry (and many billions of dollars in US investments) from possible disaster.

Just how critical the fight over Keystone has become in the eyes of the industry is suggested by a recent pro-pipeline editorial in the trade publication Oil & Gas Journal:

Controversy over the Keystone XL project leaves no room for compromise. Fundamental views about the future of energy are in conflict. Approval of the project would acknowledge the rich potential of the next generation of fossil energy and encourage its development. Rejection would foreclose much of that potential in deference to an energy utopia few Americans support when they learn how much it costs.

Opponents of Keystone XL, who are planning a mass demonstration at the White House on February 17th, have also come to view the pipeline battle in epic terms. “Alberta’s tar sands are the continent’s biggest carbon bomb”, McKibben wrote at TomDispatch.

If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature.

Halting Keystone would not by itself prevent those high concentrations, he argued, but would impede the production of tar sands, stop that “carbon bomb” from further heating the atmosphere, and create space for a transition to renewables. “Stopping Keystone will buy time”, he says, “and hopefully that time will be used for the planet to come to its senses around climate change”.

A Pipeline With Nowhere to Go?

Why has the fight over a pipeline, which, if completed, would provide only four percent of the US petroleum supply, assumed such strategic significance? As in any major conflict, the answer lies in three factors: logistics, geography, and timing.

Start with logistics and consider the tar sands themselves or, as the industry and its supporters in government prefer to call them, “oil sands”. Neither tar nor oil, the substance in question is a sludge-like mixture of sand, clay, water, and bitumen (a degraded, carbon-rich form of petroleum). Alberta has a colossal supply of the stuff – at least a trillion barrels in known reserves, or the equivalent of all the conventional oil burned by humans since the onset of commercial drilling in 1859.  Even if you count only the reserves that are deemed extractible by existing technology, its tar sands reportedly are the equivalent of 170 billion barrels of conventional petroleum – more than the reserves of any nation except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The availability of so much untapped energy in a country like Canada, which is private-enterprise-friendly and where the political dangers are few, has been a magnet for major international energy firms. Not surprisingly, many of them, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, have invested heavily in tar-sands operations.

Tar sands, however, bear little resemblance to the conventional oil fields which these companies have long exploited. They must be treated in various energy-intensive ways to be converted into a transportable liquid and then processed even further into usable products. Some tar sands can be strip-mined like coal and then “upgraded” through chemical processing into a synthetic crude oil – SCO, or “syncrude”. Alternatively, the bitumen can be pumped from the ground after the sands are exposed to steam, which liquefies the bitumen and allows its extraction with conventional oil pumps. The latter process, known as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), produces a heavy crude oil.  It must, in turn, be diluted with lighter crudes for transportation by pipeline to specialized refineries equipped to process such oil, most of which are located on the Gulf Coast.

Extracting and processing tar sands is an extraordinarily expensive undertaking, far more so than most conventional oil drilling operations. Considerable energy is needed to dig the sludge out of the ground or heat the water into steam for underground injection; then, additional energy is needed for the various upgrading processes. The environmental risks involved are enormous (even leaving aside the vast amounts of greenhouse gases that the whole process will pump into the atmosphere). The massive quantities of water needed for SAGD and those upgrading processes, for example, become contaminated with toxic substances.  Once used, they cannot be returned to any water source that might end up in human drinking supplies – something environmentalists say is already occurring.  All of this and the expenses involved mean that the multibillion-dollar investments needed to launch a tar-sands operation can only pay off if the final product fetches a healthy price in the marketplace.

And that’s where geography enters the picture.  Alberta is theoretically capable of producing five to six million barrels of tar-sands oil per day.  In 2011, however, Canada itself consumed only 2.3 million barrels of oil per day, much of it supplied by conventional (and cheaper) oil from fields in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland.  That number is not expected to rise appreciably in the foreseeable future. No less significant, Canada’s refining capacity for all kinds of oil is limited to 1.9 million barrels per day, and few of its refineries are equipped to process tar sands-style heavy crude. This leaves the producers with one strategic option: exporting the stuff.

And that’s where the problems really begin. Alberta is an interior province and so cannot export its crude by sea. Given the geography, this leaves only three export options: pipelines heading east across Canada to ports on the Atlantic, pipelines heading west across the Rockies to ports in British Columbia, or pipelines heading south to refineries in the United States.

Alberta’s preferred option is to send the preponderance of its tar-sands oil to its biggest natural market, the United States. At present, Canadian pipeline companies do operate a number of conduits that deliver some of this oil to the US, notably the original Keystone conduit extending from Hardisty, Alberta, to Illinois and then southward to Cushing, Oklahoma. But these lines can carry less than one million barrels of crude per day, and so will not permit the massive expansion of output the industry is planning for the next decade or so.

In other words, the only pipeline now under development that would significantly expand Albertan tar-sands exports is Keystone XL.  It is vitally important to the tar-sands producers because it offers the sole short-term – or possibly even long-term – option for the export and sale of the crude output now coming on line at dozens of projects being developed across northern Alberta.  Without it, these projects will languish and Albertan production will have to be sold at a deep discount – at, that is, a per-barrel price that could fall below production costs, making further investment in tar sands unattractive. In January, Canadian tar-sands oil was already selling for $30 to $40 less than West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the standard US blend.

The Pipelines That Weren’t

Like an army bottled up geographically and increasingly at the mercy of enemy forces, the tar-sands producers see the completion of Keystone XL as their sole realistic escape route to survival.  “Our biggest problem is that Alberta is landlocked”, the province’s finance minister Doug Horner said in January.

In fact, of the world’s major oil-producing jurisdictions, Alberta is the only one with no direct access to the ocean. And until we solve this problem … the [price] differential will remain large.

Logistics, geography, and finally timing. A presidential stamp of approval on the building of Keystone XL will save the tar-sands industry, ensuring them enough return to justify their massive investments. It would also undoubtedly prompt additional investments in tar-sands projects and further production increases by an industry that assumed opposition to future pipelines had been weakened by this victory.

A presidential thumbs-down and resulting failure to build Keystone XL, however, could have lasting and severe consequences for tar-sands production. After all, no other export link is likely to be completed in the near-term. The other three most widely discussed options – the Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, British Columbia, an expansion of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver, British Columbia, and a plan to use existing, conventional-oil conduits to carry tar-sands oil across Quebec, Vermont, and New Hampshire to Portland, Maine – already face intense opposition, with initial construction at best still years in the future.

The Northern Gateway project, proposed by Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, would stretch from Bruderheim in northern Alberta to Kitimat, a port on Charlotte Sound and the Pacific.  If completed, it would allow the export of tar-sands oil to Asia, where Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper sees a significant future market (even though few Asian refineries could now process the stuff).  But unlike oil-friendly Alberta, British Columbia has a strong pro-environmental bias and many senior provincial officials have expressed fierce opposition to the project. Moreover, under the country’s constitution, native peoples over whose land the pipeline would have to travel must be consulted on the project – and most tribal communities are adamantly opposed to its construction.

Another proposed conduit – an expansion of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver – presents the same set of obstacles and, like the Northern Gateway project, has aroused strong opposition in Vancouver.

This leaves the third option, a plan to pump tar-sands oil to Ontario and Quebec and then employ an existing pipeline now used for oil imports. It connects to a terminal in Casco Bay, near Portland, Maine, where the Albertan crude would begin the long trip by ship to those refineries on the Gulf Coast. Although no official action has yet been taken to allow the use of the US conduit for this purpose, anti-pipeline protests have already erupted in Portland, including one on January 26th that attracted more than 1,400 people.

With no other pipelines in the offing, tar sands producers are increasing their reliance on deliveries by rail.  This is producing boom times for some long-haul freight carriiers, but will never prove sufficient to move the millions of barrels in added daily output expected from projects now coming on line.

The conclusion is obvious: without Keystone XL, the price of tar-sands oil will remain substantially lower than conventional oil (as well as unconventional oil extracted from shale formations in the United States), discouraging future investment and dimming the prospects for increased output.  In other words, as Bill McKibben hopes, much of it will stay in the ground.

Industry officials are painfully aware of their predicament.  In an Annual Information Form released at the end of 2011, Canadian Oil Sands Limited, owner of the largest share of Syncrude Canada (one of the leading producers of tar-sands oil) noted:

A prolonged period of low crude oil prices could affect the value of our crude oil properties and the level of spending on growth projects and could result in curtailment of production … Any substantial and extended decline in the price of oil or an extended negative differential for SCO compared to either WTI or European Brent Crude would have an adverse effect on the revenues, profitability, and cash flow of Canadian Oil Sands and likely affect the ability of Canadian Oil Sands to pay dividends and repay its debt obligations.

The stakes in this battle could not be higher.  If Keystone XL fails to win the president’s approval, the industry will certainly grow at a far slower pace than forecast and possibly witness the failure of costly ventures, resulting in an industry-wide contraction.  If approved, however, production will soar and global warming will occur at an even faster rate than previously projected. In this way, a presidential decision will have an unexpectedly decisive and lasting impact on all our lives.


Michael 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 (2012), just published in paperback.  A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil (2005) can be previewed and ordered at

Copyright 2013 Michael T Klare

(c) 2013 TomDispatch. All rights reserved.

The Prometheus Trap – Part Six

SDF poised for dangerous mission into Fukushima

by Hidefumi Nogami / Staff Writer

The Asahi Shimbun (February 08 2013)

Editor’s note: This is the sixth part of a series that has run in the past under the overall title of The Prometheus Trap. This series deals with the different responses between Japan and the United States in dealing with the Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011 following the Great East Japan Earthquake. The series will appear on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

* * *

Around 10:30 am on March 15 2011, after a strictly confidential diplomatic cable from Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan’s ambassador to the United States, reached his government in Tokyo, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa canceled his entire schedule for the day.

Kitazawa convened an emergency meeting of senior ministry officials to discuss the possibilities of Self-Defense Forces operations being brought in to cool the overheating reactors at the Fukushima Number One nuclear power plant.

The discussions at the meeting focused on the Number Four unit at the plant, which had just suffered an explosion that morning. The attendees were also informed that the confidential cable had said top US military officer Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was deeply concerned about the risk posed by the Number Four unit.

Nobushige Takamizawa, director-general at the ministry’s Defense Policy Bureau, briefed Kitazawa on the opinions of the US government. Takamizawa told Kitazawa that the US military had pointed out the possibility that the spent fuel pool for the Number Four reactor might be empty and urged that measures be taken immediately to cool the reactor first, including utilizing the SDF in the effort.

Hideo Suzuki, the ministry’s secretariat counselor, conveyed the views of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency to the defense chief.

The agency had said TV footage of the explosion showing white steam rising from the Number Four reactor indicated the presence of water in the pool, Suzuki told Kitazawa.

The debris scattered by the explosions at the Number One and Number Three reactors had made it difficult to spray water on the crippled reactor from the ground.

By March 14, Prime Minister Naoto Kan had proposed to Kitazawa the use of SDF helicopters to spray water on the reactors. Kitazawa thought, without being indicated by the United States, that it was obvious that there was no choice but to use the SDF for the mission to cool the reactors.

A list of possible options compiled by the SDF included plans for spraying water from the ground or the air, as well as aerial drops of boric acid to prevent nuclear fission.

Kitazawa told top ground forces officer Yoshifumi Hibako, the chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defense Force, to carry out the mission after making careful preparations.

“We will do it with a firm resolve; leave it to us”, Hibako told Kitazawa.

Kitazawa, however, wanted to avoid any death-defying mission that risked casualties among SDF personnel. He voiced his concerns about the safety of the SDF personnel that would be involved in the mission, which would require work amid high levels of radiation.

Kitazawa suggested that married SDF officers be excluded from the units involved in the operations at the disaster-stricken nuclear power plant.

Kitazawa, who had painful memories of the Pacific War, strongly believed in making every possible effort to ensure that troops didn’t have to perform any heroic acts that required them to put their lives at risk.

Immediately after the emergency meeting, General Ryoichi Oriki, chief of staff of the SDF’s Joint Staff, Japan’s top military officer, received a phone call from Burton Field, commander of US Forces Japan.

Field stressed the need to inject water into the spent fuel pool for the Number Four reactor from above, effectively reiterating the point made by Mullen and described in the secret cable.

At 2 pm on the day, two section chief-level officials from Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the disabled plant, met with Suzuki and other senior government policymakers at the Defense Ministry.

Suzuki had asked for information needed for helicopter operations, such as the structure of the building housing the reactor and the height of steel towers around the building.

But the two TEPCO employees produced nothing but a ground plan showing the locations of facilities within the complex. It offered no information useful for the planned water-dumping operations involving helicopters.

“What did you come here for?” Suzuki yelled at the employees of the utility.

* * *

The previous installments of this series are available at: